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Dobrý den from Bratislava, Slovakia! Slovak Republic is the country’s official name, but most people call it Slovakia. The country’s largest city and capital is Bratislava, which is where I am now. This is the second stop of my four-country jaunt through Central/Eastern Europe. I’m touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike. This is a very special trip because at our final destination -- to be revealed in an upcoming newsletter – Mike is getting married! Last week (here’s the link to the archives) we were in Prague, and while I was there I didn’t know Jack about Slovakia. I didn’t even have a mad desire to visit it. The name "Slovakia" didn’t do much for me -- it didn’t give me the same warm, fuzzy feeling that "Australia" and "France" do. But that’s not the case anymore. As you’ll see, this little country has far more to offer than a strange name. If you want to experience what I think will be one of the most "in" destinations in the very near future, then jump on our train -- it’s departing! For those in a hurry or with ADD, don’t worry; there’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week’s story.
GETTING TO BRATISLAVA
There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Bratislava, but the very international Vienna airport is only 31 miles away. Most Americans who travel to Bratislava come by train from either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague (Praha). We came in from the latter. We left our hotel, and took a 500 CSK ($22) taxi
10 minutes to the Praha -Holesovice Railway Station. Although it was early on a Saturday morning, the station was jam- packed with travelers. We were unsure where to get our rail pass stamped, because none of the signs were in English. I found a ticket window where the agent had an English flag (meaning he spoke English), and he pointed me to the right place.
EUROPEAN EAST RAIL PASS
Because this was the first leg using our European East Pass, an agent had to validate it. No other trip would not require waiting in line – all we have to do is fill in the date before getting on the train. (TIP: Be sure to write in the date before
the conductor comes around; otherwise you could get a steep fine or risk having your ticket confiscated). The European East Pass covers 5 days of rail travel in 4 countries. We got our $244 first class pass (second class costs $172) from RailEurope.com before we left the States (they’re unavailable after leaving the U.S.). If you are traveling like we are -- visiting multiple countries, and you know which trains you will take -- it’s a good idea to book one of these passes before you leave home. That’s especially true in the summer, when some trains can be sold out. If you are traveling to one or two countries only, it’s not worth it – just buy point-to-point tickets at the station (but arrive extra early to avoid long lines).
PRAGUE TO BRATISLAVA
The 4-hour and 7-minute train
ride was pleasant (we
made only five stops) -- until we arrived at the Czech/Slovakian border, and customs agents from both countries came around checking passports. (If you’re a passport-stamp collector, ask them to stamp yours – they stamped mine, but not Mike’s). The mood changed when Matt got that "uh oh" look on his face. I whispered, "Please tell me you didn’t leave your passport back in the hotel safe?" From his pale face, I knew he wasn’t joking. We had no idea how the not-so-friendly-looking agents would react. Would they throw his dumb arse in jail? Make him go back to Praha? Fortunately, Matt had a photocopy of his passport; he was traveling with two other Americans who had their passports, and the agents didn’t want to do all that paperwork. They mumbled a bit to each other and split. We all breathed huge sighs of relief -- but none was bigger than Matt’s. He ended up spending hours on the phone
and looking for a Western Union facility so he could get his passport DHL-ed to him. TIP: Always carry a photo copy of your passport -- separate from the original -- and keep a scanned copy of it online, in a web-based email account.
TAXI TO HOTEL
When we arrived at Bratislava’s main train station, called Hlavna Stanica, we were met by Miro, a young, friendly and smart tour guide whom we arranged through the tourist board. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with the crooked taxi drivers. Miro arranged
a 150 SKK ($5) taxi ride to our hotel, which was only 1.2 miles (5 minutes) away. Matt was staying at a different hotel, not far away, and another taxi driver quoted him three times the price. That is the only negative thing I found about this city and region: The cabbies take advantage of tourists. Of course, that happens nearly everywhere—even in NYC. TIP: Have your hotel or restaurant call a reputable service, or make sure to negotiate the price in advance. FYI: The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 30 SKK (Slovakia Koruny).
BACKGROUND ON BRATISLAVA AND SLOVAKIA Miro
told us so much incredible information and history that we were delighted we’d hired him for a tour. I can’t give you the same history lesson he gave us, but if you’re interested, check out this insightful website. I can, however, give you a brief background on Bratislava and Slovakia. The official language is Slovak, but practically everyone in Bratislava speaks English. The city used to be called Pressburg, but it was changed to Bratislava in 1919, a year after Slovakia became part of Czechoslovakia. Slovakia regained its independence on January 1, 1993. It became the Slovak Republic, while its neighbor became the Czech Republic. Both joined the European Union
(EU) in 2004. They don’t use the euro yet, although they hope to by 2009 or 2010.
The latest census (2001) lists the total population of Slovakia at 5,379,450, with Bratislava at 452,288. Slovakia borders Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. The closest major city to Bratislava is Vienna – it’s only 40 miles away (you can see the Austrian border from the Castle). Budapest is just 127 miles away, and Prague 217 miles. Vienna and Budapest are connected to Bratislava by the Danube River, and boat cruises are available from both cities (see links in the resource section). The country is made up of Slovaks (85%), Hungarians (11%), Italians (1.8%), Czechs (1.2%). Sixty percent of the people are Roman Catholic, 6.2% Evangelic, 3.4% Greek Orthodox, 10% non-denominational, while the remaining 21% did not have any data. Slovakia is located in a moderate climate zone, with all four seasons. The average daily winter temperature is 28º F; the average winter temperature is 70º F.
Mike and I stayed at the newly renovated Crowne Plaza Bratislava. It’s a category first class deluxe hotel (I would rate it 4 stars), with 224 rooms. The hotel is just a few blocks from the heart of the city, opposite the Presidental Residence. The huge lobby
was filled primarily with American and English tourists and business travelers. This hotel is perfect for business travelers, boasting 14 meeting rooms, a business center, a great workout center, indoor pool
and high-speed internet ($6 for 1 hour, $16 a day). The rooms
are bright and comfortable, with cleanbathrooms. A hugeAmericanbreakfast
is included in the daily rate, which begins around $160 a night. Crowne Plaza Bratislava, Hodzovo Namestie 2, Bratislava 81625, Slovakia; tel.: 421-2-593-48111.
For an alternative hotel, Castle Devin and taking a River boat to Vienna check out my friend Matt's story.
The drive from the train station to the hotel had me a bit worried. The city was not looking real nice, and I thought maybe we should have spent just one day here, not two. But that feeling changed the minute Mike and I took a short walk to the Main Square. Much of it is pedestrian-only, so people can stroll past the countless shops, cafés, wine bars, pubs and restaurants without dodging cars or motor scooters. The pedestrian zone begins at St. Michael’s Gate and ends by the Danube River -- a solid 10 square blocks.
This area really impressed us. Not only were the streets and buildings
really clean, but they looked
I almost felt as if I was in one of Las Vegas’ beautifully designed European hotels. Unlike Vega$, however, this place
is filled with a long history. Walking down the cobblestone streets and admiring the different architectures, especially the neo-Gothic style, was an event in itself. During the day, construction
teams work all over, as they continue to better this city. There weren’t
nearly as many tourists as in Praha, so it seemed we had the town to ourselves. At night, though, the whole area turned lively. The outdoor cafes were packed, and the streets filled with well-dressed beautiful locals. It’s so vibrant because this is really the only place open for locals and tourists to go.
ST. MICHAEL’S GATE
Mike made sure we went up St. Michael’s Gate. A great place to get a bird’s- eye view of the area, it costs
only 60 SKK ($2) to walk seven easy staircases to the top. You can take your time, or even stop at each level to see an exhibition of arms and city fortifications from different time periods through the city’s history. St. Michael´s Gate, Michalská 24; open Tuesday – Sunday, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; tel.: 421-2-5443-3044.
Mike and I were starving, so Miro recommended the Templars Restaurant as good, casual, inexpensive place. I figured that because I just got finished filming the Da Vinci Code TV show a few weeks earlier, this would be a good choice. Downstairs
the dark, good-looking restaurant transported me back to the Medieval period. It would have made for a fine, romantic meal, but I was with Mike, not some Bratislavan hottie. We opted to dine outside, so we could people-watch
in the nice weather. The food
was a little bland and the rice had a nasty aftertaste, but overall it was good and the price was right. Main dishes cost about $6 apiece! Templars Restaurant, Panska 18, Bratislava I; tel.: 421-0903-434-047.
There are plenty
to eat, with all kinds of cuisine choices -- not just the typical Slovakian meal of soup and goulash. To pretend you’re a local, eat a light breakfast, have a lunch of soup and a main dish between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., then have a heavy dinner from 5 p.m. on. Many restaurants stay open late, and the prices were generally much cheaper than Praha.
LE MONDE RESTAURANT We
had dinner at one of the city’s best and most stylish
restaurants, Le Monde. Located in the heart of Bratislava‘s historical pedestrian zone, it offers a mixture of dishes
from all over the world. The menu lists prices in both SKK and euros, making it so much easier on my brain (and enabling me to savor even better the tasty food). I started with the red and green pear salad
(345 SKK = $12), then had chicken (495 SKK = $17). I added the chocolate fondant
(275 SKK = $10) for my emerging Buddha belly. It was a gorgeous night, as we sat on the upper balcony with a beautiful view of the Slovak National Theater
(Slovenské Národné Divadlo) and Hviezdoslav Square. Talk about great people watching! There was lots of action. With airfares so low (especially from England), many loud, t-shirt wearing English guys come for the weekend to enjoy the party
atmosphere. The English are actually pretty fun to watch, but the locals don’t like them. Be sure to tell them you’re from America – not England! Le Monde, Rybárska brána 8, 811 01 Bratislava, Slovak Republic; tel.: 421-2-5441 5411.
After our first lunch we walked with Matt across
one of Bratislava’s five bridges (the most unique is Novy Most) over the Danube to Aupark. This side of the Danube contains all the communist-era housing. It’s not as pretty, but you won’t see many tourists either. The Aupark is the city’s largest park, and its largest shopping and entertainment center. There are more than 200 shops, restaurants, cafes, movie theatres, a bowling alley -- even a casino.
ST MARTINS CATHEDRAL
street to walk down in the city is Kapitulska. It’s cobblestone, hidden from the main path in the historic center, has incredible colorful buildings and surprisingly has very few tourists, or even locals. At the end of the street is the Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral, constructed during the 15th century over the ruins of a Romanesque church but later damaged by war and an earthquake. It was rebuilt in 1849. This historical cathedral has been the site of 19 coronations, including Maria Theresia -- the only ruling empress of the Habsburg dynasty – in 1741. Inside you will find a Baroque altar, and incredible stained glass
Built 280 feet above the Danube River, on top of a hill overlooking the city center, is Bratislava Castle. Its four towers look like an overturned table. The Castle has been rebuilt many times and in many shapes, but it was an important fortified settlement as early as the 9th century. It was burned to the ground in 1811, and not reconstructed until 1968. Its shape is modeled after the 18th century style. Today the castle is a popular tourist
attraction, a history museum, and of course
viewing spot. Next door, in a modern building, is the National Council of Slovak. The castle is open Tuesday - Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fee: 80 SKK ($2.70). Bratislava Castle, 810 06 Bratislava 16; tel.: 421-2-5441-1444.
Although Bratislava is not as architecturally impressive as Praha, I enjoyed my short stay here much more. The restaurants here didn’t try to rip you off with the potato or bread scam (see last week’s newsletter), and the locals were much friendlier and really wanted us to enjoy their beautiful country. The prices were very reasonable. I can’t wait to come back and see the rest of Slovakia beyond this marvelous city. I hear it’s even more beautiful -- and the locals are even friendlier.
Here’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Bratislava. With high-speed the video takes about 1 minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.
Next week we visit a nearby major city! Wonder which one it could be?
*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!
Praha -Holesovice Railway Station
Inside The Terminal
1st Class Carriage
4 Hour Ride
Bratislava’s Main Train Station
View From My Room
Near St. Martins
Not Over Crowded
St. Michael’s Gate
View From St. Michael’s
Lots of Brides
Plenty of Places to Eat
St. Martin’s Cathedral
View From Castle
What To Bring Home
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SOME OF LAST WEEK'S READER AIR-eMAIL
Fantastic video clip and info – thanks. Tania Dougherty - New York, NY
Your videos always make me smile. Helen :-) Ventura, CA
Loved the Prague newsletter...makes me want to go! Donna - Lafayette, IN
I pretty much agree with you about Prague, however, my third time visiting the city (in February) was my best time. It was like having a medieval city all to myself! The snow was ankle deep, and nighttime with the snowfall couldn't be more romantic. If you have a chance see a place much cheaper, smaller and more charming, I suggest Krakow. Getting there is the problem. Joe S – Anchorage, AK
Enjoyed reading your journal. I will be in Prague in Sept. I got a lot of good information from your journal. Thanks, Linda - Torrance, Ca
I have been to Prague 3 times in the past 10 years and love it each time more. I do agree that it has gotten much more expensive than when I was first there in the early 90's. but the food is still good and the sights fantastic. I have my favorite shops for crystal and discover new things each time. Your overall view was spot on, although I didn't encounter the bread or chips thing at all. Carol B. - NYC.
Praha story was good. I have been there. Did almost the same stuff you did. Very cool place. Kyle E – Omaha, NE
I read with interest your article on Prague. I go there every year for 1 or 2 months to teach--most recently medical ethics. I found your item to be generally accurate. I think that you had the typical first time tourist experience. Just a few points--the bus/metro from the airport is 20kcs--bread usually runs about 25kcs but is always on the menu as an extra as are the potatoes. Look at the back of the food section for the prices of what they call extras and we assume are included in the meal. I guess, when you think about it, if you don't want bread or potatoes why should you have to pay for them. The prices in the tourist areas are much higher than in the rest of Prague. If you travel into the countryside, the prices are about 1/3 of what you would expect in Prague. The taxi drivers are famous for ripping you off but the AAA taxi service is honest and reliable. I could go on but my thought is that just because things are different does not make them worse or bad. I enjoy your articles--easy and fun to read. Dr Richard D Rapoport - Media, PA. PS when you were on the Charles Bridge, you were only about 200 yards from a very reasonably priced pub/restaurant with lots of locals (Club Atmosphere) just down the street from there is Restaurace Stolleti--an outstanding value with high quality meat. The restaurant at your hotel is excellent but pricey--newly opened and the chef (nice guy) is trying his best to please.
“I wasn’t familiar with this territory that opened up to Westerners in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain.” Not exactly. I spent 3 weeks in what was then Czechoslavakia in 1971. There were two of us (exchange students in Denmark) and we had driven from Copenhagen. We were free to drive wherever we wished (Prague, Brno, Bratislava & small country villages) though there was certainly still a heavy, visible Soviet military presence at the time. We were definitely an item of curiousity but the people could not have been nicer. Michael Rubenstein - Jackson, MS
Very informative. I hope to visit Prague, Budapest, and Vienna in November. Dan - South Bend, Indiana
Dear Johnny Jet: I read your email and newsletter every week and I live vicariously through your many wonderful travels. I always feel a pang in my heart when you mention your mom, who you loved so much, and how much you miss her. My mom passed away too, from lung cancer, and it is painful every day and so I share your feelings. I read your report about Prague with much interest as I have never been there. It is the first place I can recall that you have written negatively about and I do appreciate your honesty. However I would still like to see it one day. I am glad they removed the horns from the head of the Jewish figure, in Rome Michelangelo's Moses has quite prominent horns on his head, quite bizarre. I would like to recommend a place to you that I went to and absolutely loved and have not stopped thinking about since I left there: Argentina. It has wonderful people, great food (the wine and steak are superb), beautiful scenery and is a wonderful place to visit. Don't miss it. Happy Travels....Sheryll Rappaport - Fort Lauderdale, FL
I found your website while doing a google search looking for an Iguazu Falls webcam (Brazil or Argentina side...doesn't matter). I went there in 2004 and it truley was unbelievable, a must see for anyone who is able to make the trip. Nothing on the net will come close to what you will experience when there. I have read on CNN that the falls are now reduced to a trickle at best. You might also want to warn any interested travelers not to go until October/November when things are expected to be normal again. I did find the booking buddy tool useful and saved it. Thank you! Sherri Suarez - Columbus, Ohio
Great newsletter about your trip to Praha. I felt sad to read about your feeling at the Copenhagen airport. It’s good to continually remember you mother. My wife’s mother passed away on Good Friday this year – she lived with us almost all of the 40 years we’ve been married. It a real loss and so
difficult to get over. I’m sure like us, you have many happy memories of your mom. Geof O - San Francisco
As a travel writer I should not have to tell you, you ate, drank, and stayed with the tourists. Within a 10 minute walk of the city center, you could have had a great meal including salad, bread and dessert at several no name restaurants eating with the Czechs for $10/person. They are friendly and will work around your English. The best red wine in Europe is $3.00/bottle. Unfortunately, I have never found a U.S. importer of Czech wines. Cheers, LJG - Savannah, GA. PS. Johnny Jet also mentioned Prague taxis and my experiences were the same. I was fortunate because someone referred me to Michael Jakubuv (www.mike-chauffeur.cz). We used his services on two trips to Prague for local transportation (concerts), airport-train pickups, Prague city tours, and tours to nearby towns (Karlovy Vary, etc.). Mike not only provided the transportation but reserved English speaking local guides at a reduced fee. Mike speaks English and is completely reliable and honest. One of his drivers tried to give me part of his tip back because he said I was over tipping him. That happens about once a century. When you have 3-4 people in the group, his fees are better than the tour companies and independent guides. You see more in less time and with less hassle. Listening to a guide on a tour bus repeating the same monologue in three different languages to 30-35 people is not the best sightseeing experience. Disclaimer: I have no vested interest in Mike or his company. He is a small business entrepreneur employing mostly family members in a business and a country trying to figure out the free enterprise system. I wish him success.
After reading this weeks newsletter and seeing the pics from your onboard wireless experience.. I have a HINT for you. If you use IM to keep in touch with family/friends I highly recommend a great service (free and pay version) called Trillian http://www.ceruleanstudios.com/learn/ It combines all your IM's (AOL, MSN, Y!IM, etc...) into one screen and log-in process. I have been using it for years and it's great. I have the pay version (very reasonable). One small drawback is some of the individual features of the IM are not available (like picture share on YahooIM) but over all very convenient. And if you have to use that feature you can always log into that service separately. Hope this helps you out. Take care. Carolyn – San Francisco, CA
This is excellent. My husband and I are world travelers. Being former teachers we travel on the cheap. Too bad I didn't have the time to do the extensive traveling we do now when I was teaching. We've learned so much about the world. We took backpacks even though we were in our late 40's and read thoroughly Frommers' Eastern Europe and took off on our own. We knew about the taxi drivers in Eastern Europe. They mostly operated the same. In Prague they hung a rag over the taxi meter. This was to hide it from customers so they could charge what they wanted. We'd read about it and made them move the rag and then negotiated the price before we took off!!!! Prague is a wonderful city. I loved reading your travel adventures with your mother. NB - Overland Park, KS
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