Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Traveling to Slovakia with a Toddler, Part 1

We're back in Slovakia! But before I get into what we've been doing on this trip, I need to talk a little about what it's like to take toddlers on a long-haul trans-Atlantic flight.

To anyone thinking of traveling aboard with an 18-month old, especially if it involves a long-haul nine-hour-plus flight in economy seats, my advice is an emphatic DON'T.

Wait until your kid is four or five years old, i.e., old enough to be able to keep him/herself occupied with coloring books or small toys, and old enough to be able to use and navigate an iPad or tablet of some kind, and old enough to watch movies on the plane's seat-back screen without constantly killing them by impulsively swiping all over the screen with their little hands.

And if you still insist on going, forget about the whole kids under two riding for free thing, and fork over the extra money for your toddler's own seat. Dealing with a fidgety toddler who stubbornly fights sleep at every turn in economy seats is torture enough, and when your kid doesn't even have the sliver of extra space that his/her own seat affords, and is forced to be on your laps, the trip can turn into a seemingly never-ending nightmare fast.

On our nine-and-a-half-hour flight from SFO to Amsterdam, Simon slept a total of three hours. For the first six and a half hours, he absolutely wouldn't go to sleep. He ran numerous laps up and down the aisles of the plane, he messed with the seat-back screens to the point where I thought he was going to make them go haywire, he fidgeted a lot, and played with a variety of random non-toy objects, and it wasn't until about 11:30 p.m. his time that he finally crashed. At one point when I was changing his diaper in the minuscule restroom, he was so exhausted that he was laughing and crying at the same time. When he finally crashed, he was sprawled out across our laps, with his head on mine, his butt on Terezia, and his feet on the lap of the poor woman stuck in the window seat.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about throwing myself off the plane through one of the exit doors. We overheard one guy sitting across the aisle from us say to his friend that Simon was a shitty kid. I wanted to say, "No, he is 18 months old and he behaves like most 18-month olds; actually, we are shitty parents for taking an 18-month-old kid on a long-haul flight. He shouldn't be faulted for any of this."

Simon stayed awake during the two-hour layover at Amsterdam Schiphol, and he kept trying to make a run for the moving walkway near our gate. Terezia and I took turns going back and forth on it with him several times. On the one-and-a-half-hour flight from Amsterdam to Budapest, Simon didn't sleep a wink. He finally crashed on the nearly two-hour cab ride from Budapest to Terezia's parents' place, and thankfully slept the whole way.

Toddlers with Jet Lag

Even if you survive the long-haul flight with your sanity (and your marriage) still barely intact, that's really just the first hurdle: You will then be confronted with the Boschian hell of a toddler with jet lag.

For the first two nights, Simon conked out (hard) between 8 and 9 in the evening, but awoke around midnight, wide-eyed and ready to play, and stayed awake until about 4:30. Then we all crashed and slept from nearly 5 a.m. until about 11 a.m. Totally exasperated and driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown, we scoured the web for tips on how to deal with jet-lagged toddlers. The problem is they really have no idea what's going on, and they're incapable of understanding that they need to try to sleep during the night so that their clock adjusts to the nine-hour time difference.

Crucial tip: When your baby or toddler awakes in the middle of the night and refuses to go right back to sleep, keep the lights as dim as possible and try to keep any physical activity limited to the bed. Basically, treat nighttime like nighttime, and don't let them run around and play like it's daytime.

We kept the lights off and played episodes of Macko Uško on one of our laptops. Macko Uško is a 1970s Polish (dubbed in Slovak) stop-animation TV show for kids with a cast of anthropomorphic animal characters. The main character is Macko Uško, a bear with a floppy ear who exhibits an OCD-like degree of neatness. The whimsical show has a slightly sleepy, old-timey feel similar to Gumby, lacking the frenetic energy of contemporary cartoons, so it's not likely to rile your kid up. Terezia and her brother watched it when they were little kids. Thankfully, it kind of worked. Simon was down without too much fuss after just two hours, and we were able to go back to bed by 1:00.

The fourth night was, finally, the first night that he slept all the way through.

But part of the problem when you have a baby who's dealing with jet lag is that you, the parent, have to deal with it too, and you really can't. In the pre-Simon era, I would take a sleeping pill the first few nights after arriving in Europe to help me sleep through the night and to get my internal clock adjusted to the new time zone faster. But you can't take a sleeping pill when you have a baby or toddler because you need to be able to wake up if/when they wake up, and you need to be alert enough to deal with them. So, once we got Simon more or less sleeping through the night and back on his regular schedule, we were still having trouble getting to sleep at night, waking up at odd hours, and fighting severe waves of drowsiness at various points in the day.

Taking It Slow

At any rate, suffice it to say we didn't do a helluva lot the first several days. On our first full day, after waking up at 11:00 a.m., we got Simon fed and dressed quickly so that he could explore Terezia's parents' huge backyard/garden. Their garden was looking especially green and lush, particularly since their apple trees were insanely productive this year. Several lower branches on a few of the trees were so weighed down by apples they had to be propped up. It was awesome to see Simon sitting under an apple tree next to a big pile of apples, checking them out and rolling them around. Simon also learned really fast that he can pick the sweet, dark purple concord grapes right off the vine and eat them.

We piddled around the house, yard, and village, and when Simon went down for his afternoon nap, I grabbed my iPod and took my customary walk around the village. There was a lot of this the first few days.

The second day was scarcely more productive, though we did go into town, i.e., Lučenec, to check out the playground at the city park and to make a stop at Tesco. This park has a big duck pond which caught Simon's attention since it was teeming with ducks and he loves water, but he kept trying to go under the knee-high chain around the edge of the pond so that he could go in the water or something.

The next day, we went into Lučenec again to get ice cream from Záhradná, one of the best ice cream joints I've been to in Slovakia. This place goes way back – Terezia and her brother were taken there as kids. Záhradná really nails the texture, which is smooth and creamy, and their flavors are generally pretty rich. The server gave Simon a free ice cream cone, and we put bite-sized pieces of our ice cream onto his cone so he could have some, since he's a little too young to manage a full cone of his own without dumping it on the ground and having the whole experience end in tears.

Later that afternoon we went to see Terezia's super nice childhood friend Mirka, who lives in the town of Detva. We visited Mirka the last time we were in Slovakia. She has a daughter, Lucia, who is just three or four months older than Simon, and the two of them seemed to hit it off. What's cool about Mirka's place is that it's totally set up for kids. In her backyard there is a swing and a big elevated wood fort full of various toys and a window looking out over the yard. Mirka's living room is also extremely kid friendly, to the point where it kind of looks like a daycare center. Simon was in heaven.

Mirka lives on the edge of town, and the four of us walked up the street to a ranch in the hills where a girl was riding a horse and a couple of peacocks were ambling around. Just beyond that was a pasture with a flock of sheep. We went up to the gate, called the sheep over, and fed them pieces of bread. Simon really dug seeing the sheep up close and offering them bread.

Banská Štiavnica

On Friday we took a little road trip to Banská Štiavnica with Terezia's mom. We've been to Banská Štiavnica a few times, and I've written a little about it here. It's by far one of Slovakia's most picturesque medieval towns, and it has the look and vibe of a real, historic European town with its narrow and winding cobblestone lanes, grand and ornate medieval and renaissance facades, and elegant church spires and clock towers poking out over the rooftops.

As I've written previously, Banská Štiavnica was a hugely important mining town in the region, and the wealth from that resulted in the grand historic center that you see today. The fact that the Ottomans never managed to conquer Banská Štiavnica (though they tried), and that the Communists mostly left it alone, also surely helped to preserve the town. It's somewhat isolated and off the beaten path too. Once you turn off the E58 highway, you head south for 25 minutes or so on a road that winds through dense forests, soaring hills, and a couple of quaint villages. The surrounding terrain is so rugged that there are very few villages or towns in the vicinity.

The town's main square with the plague column

The setting is gorgeous, and the streets and buildings spill gracefully down the sides of the steep, tree-covered hills. Attractive medieval towns like this, in this kind of setting, are a dime a dozen in Tuscany or Provence, but in Slovakia they're much less common, which is partly what makes Banská Štiavnica stand out.

Banská Štiavnica is a great place for wandering around, but, of course, with Simon in tow, we couldn't cover too much ground. We piddled around the town's center for a bit, and Simon really dug watching cars go by on the main road from the elevated sidewalk. We stopped by a toy store with posh wooden vehicles made to look like old-fashioned cars, meant for little kids to ride on and/or push around, and the employee there was cool about letting Simon push some of them around for a bit.

A little history: Banská Štiavnica lies in a massive caldera created when an ancient volcano collapsed, which made the area extremely rich in minerals. Settlers had been mining in Banská Štiavnica since the 1100s, and probably much earlier, but things really took off when Hungarian rulers began inviting German mining experts, engineers, and scientists to the town around the 14th century to share their knowledge and expand the mines. The town became known throughout Europe as a gold and silver mining hotspot. A lot of innovations in mining occurred here, including one of the very first uses of gun powder for mining, and the creation of an intricate system of reservoirs and channels to filter water out of the mines. A prestigious mining academy was established in the town in the 1700s, whose graduates were seen in the industry as being at the top of the heap. A bustling university town built around a vibrant and highly lucrative industry, Banská Štiavnica was hopping by the 17th century, and was at one point the third largest town in the kingdom of Hungary.

However, with more and more precious metals coming in from overseas, and with the town's mines approaching depletion, Banská Štiavnica began losing its competitive edge in the world market by the mid-1800s, and gradually fell into decline. It remained somewhat of a backwater until the 1990s when its buildings were restored and the town was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At any rate, for lunch we ate at a place with outdoor front patio seating so that it would be easy to get up and take Simon outside in case he got antsy or crabby - and that's exactly what happened, particularly since the restaurant's lone highchair was already occupied by a much younger baby, which meant Simon was flopping around in a regular chair. (The waitress brought out a sort of tall, white, plastic stool with no arms and no way to secure a little kid, which was completely useless. Simon could maybe do a booster seat atop a regular chair, but he'd fall right off this stupid stool thing in seconds.) We each took turns taking Simon up and down the block while we scarfed down the daily lunch menu special of beer-battered fried chicken and potatoes.

It was a condensed visit, obviously, since we can't expect Simon to walk all over the town with us, and he also doesn't like to be in a stroller for more than 25–30 minutes at a time. But we knew it would be this way going in. You have to have very realistic expectations of how much (or how little) ground you can cover when you've got a toddler with you. And you have to be ready to abruptly stop what you're doing and high-tail it out of wherever you are if your toddler suddenly starts acting tired or cranky.

Winter shot of Banská Štiavnica taken in February 2012

One interesting development since our last visit to Banská Štiavnica was that the abandoned old synagogue has been restored. I wasn't able to get inside, so I don't know what it's currently being used for, but at least now the building isn't going to crumble away. When we last saw it, the windows were broken and/or boarded up, and the whole thing was looking pretty shabby. I mentioned in this post how the Holocaust decimated Slovakia's Jewish population, and very few Jews who survived returned to Slovakia after WWII. During communism, the abandoned synagogues were typically either used for storage and/or neglected and left to the elements. But in the last decade or so, towns have gradually been able to secure funding to fully restore the synagogues, which are often repurposed as cultural centers or galleries.

The synagogue back in February 2012
The synagogue after restoration in September 2018

Terezia's mom was utterly exhausted after our little day trip. She's been extremely helpful with Simon on this trip, and happy to spend time with him, but the car ride to and from Banská Štiavnica, as well as exploring the town with Simon, completely wore her out! Terezia and I are pretty much in a permanent state of exhaustion these days, so we know how this feels.

Click here to see more photos from this trip.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Updates to Jeff's Tour of Communist Bratislava

This is just an update to let people know that I've added three sites to my "Jeff's tour of communist Bratislava" page: a very cool apartment building on Medená ulica, the Vinohrady train station, and the Bratislava Airport "Government" Lounge (Vládny salónik). I've also got an update on the current status of the beloved Československá Automobilová Doprava sign, since the bus station is being rebuilt from the ground up. Check it out here!

Vinohrady train station (photo by James Thomson)

I realize I'm a moron for not including these sites when I first wrote this particular blog page, but better late than never. Also, at the time of writing, you won't be able to see/visit the Airport "Government" Lounge, unfortunately, but it's such a unique and striking design that I still wanted to bring attention to it. 

And if anyone knows of any must-see 20th-century/modern communist-era buildings or sites that I haven't mentioned in my self-guided tour, please let me know about them. If a site is accessible by public transit, not too far on the outskirts of Bratislava, can be seen without you getting chased off by angry security guards, and meets my own possibly idiosyncratic standards of what makes a cool structure, I'll consider adding it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 3

At the time of writing this, we've actually been back in the States for about two weeks. I apologize profusely for being so wildly late with this third and final post, but we were coping with a nine-month old who wasn't coping so well with the jet lag, which meant for the first week after our return, we were getting about four hours of very interrupted sleep per night. The stepfather of a close friend of mine told me before Simon was born that humans are designed to endure the sleep deprivation that comes with raising babies, but I'm starting to seriously question that.

Compared to previous trips, this one was much more low key and uneventful - sometimes frustratingly so. And that's why I feel like I don't have a lot to say in this third and final blog post. As I mentioned in the last post, part of that had to do with how traveling with a very active and curious nine-month-old baby can be quite challenging. Simon actually does pretty well in most circumstances, but like all babies, he does have his limits.

Also, crappy, rainy weather on several days conspired to keep us homebound, as well as some issues with Terezia's dad's car - a small, aging Skoda hatchback with an engine that sounds like a gas-powered lawn mower, which is in dire need of a tune up and oil change, among other things (like new windshield wipers). And in some ways, this trip felt even less like a vacation since Terezia's parents' home is not baby proof, so when Simon was roaming free throughout the house, someone had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he wasn't getting into lower cupboards, smashing his fingers when opening and closing drawers, pulling down table cloths, or climbing dressers or TVs that could topple onto him. (We also had to keep him away from Terezia's parents' chihuahua, Ricky, because when they were first introduced, Simon playfully grabbed Ricky's ears and yanked them - something that Ricky really wasn't into.)

There were a few occasions when the height of our day was literally just going for a 30-40 minute walk around the village, or going into Lučenec to run some errands.

After one such trip to Lučenec, Simon fell asleep and was in dire need of a decent nap, so we just kept driving, ending up on a scenic loop that went through Tuhár, Divín, and Ružiná. I cycled this loop twice two years previously with Tony, Jano, and Christoph, but as Terezia and I were driving it, we saw that lengthy stretches of the roads were covered in loose gravel (put there because of the snow from earlier in December), which would have made it totally dangerous and basically unridable for a road bike.

Tuhár is really nothing more than a small, remote, backwater village, located a bit far off the beaten path, that has nothing of interest to anyone who doesn't live there. However, there is something about it's setting in a picturesque canyon, and its rows of old ramshackle houses, that makes it visually appealing.

Tuhár, photo taken in 2015

According to Terezia's mom, Tuhár is known for suffering water shortages. Even though a creek runs through the village (and when we drove through, there was still several inches of thick snow on the ground, whereas the snow had pretty much all melted back in Podrečany and Lučenec), Tuhár apparently goes through periods when it just runs out of water. A lot of people in the smaller villages in this region have wells and septic tanks, and many streets are not hooked up to any sort of water grid, so I suppose Tuhár's water problem shouldn't be too surprising. Still, Slovakia gets lots of rain (and snow) throughout the year, and from what I've been told, droughts are typically not a problem for most areas. It's super weird and unfortunate that the state is not able to help improve the infrastructure in some way.

On our last trip in 2015-2016, Terezia's cousin Jano said Tuhár has some kind of folk festival around New Year's that locals go to, but he added Christoph (who is German) and I shouldn't go because we'd probably get beat up by the locals simply for being foreigners. So, yeah, Tuhár: reportedly lacking in water and an open mind?

Date Night (sort of)

New Year's was pretty low key for us, but the night before New Year's Eve, we finally got Terezia's mom to agree to watch Simon for a couple of hours so we could go out for a date night. That day, Tony and his wife Silvia drove out to Podrečany, and we went out to a newish restaurant in Lučenec called Tančiareň a pivovar.

Tančiareň is trying really hard to stand apart from the typical greasy Slovak grub holes that are common in towns like Lučenec. It's a gastropub where they make their own beer and prepare things like upscale-ish hamburgers with fries served in metal cones. The place is spacious with tall, exposed-brick walls and steel beams, a couple of big beer vats by the front windows, and young waitstaff. The owners have clearly gone to great lengths to create a vibe and menu that cater to "hip" 20 or 30 somethings who are slightly more aware of the world outside the village.

While Terezia, Silvia, and Tony all focused on the trendier hamburger options, I stubbornly went in a more Slovak direction with the confit duck leg with red cabbage and loksa. Huge mistake: the duck leg was dried out and bland, while the portion of soupy red cabbage was so disproportionately massive that you could have doled all of it out over the denne menu plate of every patron during a lunchtime rush. The beer was quite good though, particularly an "American-style brown ale" that was like a darker amber ale.

So, I'd probably return for a beer, but maybe not the food.

Fortunately, for the New Year's Eve dinner, Terezia made us a roasted duck dinner, and obviously her tender, juicy, intensely flavorful duck blew away the desiccated, leathery travesty at Tančiareň.

Back to Bratislava

Tony was fighting a nasty cold/flu, so he and Silvia went right back home the very same day they drove out. Unfortunately, that left us having to find some way to get back to Bratislava a few days later, where we'd be spending the last few days of our trip. We didn't want to take the train, as that involves a four-hour ride that might have tested Simon's patience, especially since these days the drive is only about 2.5 hours.

Fortunately, Terezia's aunt hooked us up with a local cab driver she knew through someone, who offered to take us back for around 100 euros. Unfortunately, even though we were assured he'd show up in a "combi" (in English this word describes a kind of van, but in Slovak it's basically a station wagon), the driver arrived in a car that was really more of a glorified hatchback. We were barely able to cram everything, including Simon in his car seat, into the car. I was wedged in the backseat between the door and a large suitcase that was jammed between Simon and myself. 

But the driver was quite friendly, and he and Terezia chatted all the way back to Tony's house. During communism, the driver had a job that had something to do with the roads, and when we drove through his native Trnava region, he was full of amusing bits of info on the local roads. 

For example, running alongside highway 62 between Sládkovičovo and Senec is an old, narrow, rough-looking road that the locals apparently refer to (still) as "Hitler's road" because it was built by the Nazis during WWII. This road was apparently the first paved road through this particular stretch. The communists eventually built their own road, part of which runs alongside it, made out of concrete slabs (as opposed to asphalt), but it apparently aged quickly and badly next to Hitler's road from all the pointless military parades that they used it for. When it came time to replace the communist-era road, it was in hideous shape. The driver said that because the road was made out of these thick, heavy-duty concrete slabs, it was too much work to remove it, so they opted to make a new road directly on top of it instead. But because it was so torn up, pitted, and bumpy, they had to pour more than a foot's worth of asphalt over it to make it smooth and even.

This stretch of highway 62 also has what were jokingly referred to as "kissing zones," which look like dual roadside pullouts facing each other on opposite sides of the road. Despite their name, kissing zones were not lovers' lane type hangouts where teenagers would park their cars and get to third base behind fogged-up windows. When the Soviets would send political delegations into Czechoslovakia, these kissing zones were where the Czechoslovak officials would first greet the Russian delegates and do the rounds of traditional cheek kissing common among central and eastern Europeans. Why they would first meet at the side of the road outside of town is beyond me, but that's what these shoulder turnouts were for, and not for turning into if you had car trouble or wanted to let someone pass you.

The driver said that when they'd get word that a Soviet delegation was coming through, they had to make the road and the surroundings look immaculate, doing everything short of painting the grass green to make it spic and span. It didn't matter if a nearby village's roads were a complete mess - all that mattered was that things looked shiny and new wherever the Soviet delegations traveled.

Twenty-Five Years of Independence

During our trip, Slovakia was celebrating its 25th anniversary since the "Velvet Divorce," when Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully (albeit not democratically) went their separate ways. It's quite amazing to consider how far Slovakia has come since its days in the 1990s as "the black hole of Europe" under Vladimír Mečiar, who most people agree as having had a super corrupt, autocratic, media-muzzling, economy-tanking, Russian-style form of governing. And it's especially impressive how, of the four Visegrad countries (the others being Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), Slovakia is, at the time of writing, the sanest and most politically stable.

Hungary, under Viktor Orban, has become a far-right, nationalist, autocratic, illiberal democracy, and Poland over the past few years has been quickly following in Hungary's footsteps with an uber-right-wing government that's working feverishly to erode democratic institutions and norms. The Czech Republic's president of the last four years, Miloš Zeman, is a populist, nationalist, pro-Putin, euroskeptic, Islamaphobic blowhard who won with wide rural support (and is up for re-election this month), and the country's new prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is a populist billionaire oligarch with alleged ties to the communist-era secret police whose business interests are seen as a massive conflict of interest.

Of course, as a friend of mine noted, Slovakia's relative political stability/sanity could all come crashing down in a single national election that goes the wrong way. But the fact that just last year in 2017, voters in the Banska Bystrica region ousted their scary, neo-Nazi, anti-EU incumbent governor, Marian Kotleba, is quite promising.

Slovakia still has plenty of problems: its current prime minister, Robert Fico, has been making hostile, toxic comments about the media and immigrants years before Trump. But for the past four years, Slovakia's president, Andrej Kiska, has been the only voice of sanity and reason among the top elected officials of the Visegrad Four, and he's had the effect of helping Slovakia to be seen in a more positive light. I've heard that Kiska doesn't want to run for re-election, but I hope he changes his mind. Slovakia (and central Europe) needs more adults in the room like him.

One Last, Brief Excursion in Bratislava's Old Town

On our last full day in Slovakia, we took a little trip back into Bratislava. Naturally, the weather that day was crap, alternating between rain and snow throughout the afternoon (though it was quite nice the day before and the day after, of course). As soon as Silvia dropped us off near Eurovea, the rain turned into big globs of wet snow, and as it was about lunchtime, we ducked into Kolkovna, a decent restaurant at the west end of Eurovea.

I ordered their plate of goose leg with red cabbage and potato dumplings, which was profoundly superior to the dried-out leather shoe I'd had at Tančiareň in Lučenec. This goose was so awesomely tender, juicy, and flavorful that it was almost as good as Terezia's duck! I didn't remember being this impressed with Kolkovna in the past, so I wonder if they have someone new working in the kitchen. Terezia got the fried cheese, a Slovak and Czech staple that she likes to indulge in at least once when she's there, while Simon made a mess with a bread roll and some puree.

One of my goals for this trip was to find some Slovak children's books for Simon. We plan to raise Simon bilingual, with Terezia speaking to him in Slovak and me in English. But while we'd been given a slew of English books, we had none in Slovak, and I knew we'd be able to remedy that at one of Bratislava's decent bookstores. At Gorilla, a cozy bookstore/cafe near SNP square, we spent nearly 40 euros on kid's books. I was excited to find a Slovak translation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Even though Simon's too young to understand these books, he really seems to gravitate towards bold colors and playful illustrations, and he always tries to grab at the animals in Carle's books.

We did manage to piddle around the Stare Mesto a bit, but the rain really made it less than fun. On the way back toward Eurovea, as we were walking through our old neighborhood, we stopped by the building where a friend and former co-worker of Terezia, named Katka, lives and paid her a totally impromptu visit. She was happy to see us and, like a typical hospitable Slovak, she insisted we come in for coffee and cake.

Back to the Airport

On our last day, we took a cab to Vienna's Schwechat airport where we were staying on our final night at the adjacent NH hotel. This place is super convenient when you have to fly out from Vienna in the morning, since you literally just exit the hotel and make a short walk across a parking lot.

That evening, I finally got the chance to meet up with one of my friends, James, whom I worked with at the Slovak Spectator when living in Bratislava. He has since relocated to Vienna to work as an editor for a cool website, called Eurozine, which publishes political articles and essays. He kindly offered to trek out to the hotel, where we met up in the bar and discussed politics and our sometimes irrational longing for Slovakia and its myriad idiosyncrasies over a few rounds of beer.

Fun anecdote: when asking the bartender if the Budweiser listed on the menu was the original Czech beer or the fake, super bland/weak American one, the bartender gave a look of mild disdain and replied: "We don't import American water."

When I came back up the room, where Terezia and Simon were asleep, I was slightly dismayed to find that, for some reason, Simon refused to sleep in the Pack-n-Play style crib provided by the hotel and would only sleep on the bed, sideways and in between us, of course, pushing Terezia and I out to the edges. Maybe suddenly having too sleep in a new, strange place was a bit much and he wanted to be closer to us.

Final Thoughts

At any rate, that's it! I feel kind of bad that this trip was so uneventful that I really didn't have much to write about. Honestly, it probably did not justify three blog posts, and I felt I had to really dig to find anything worth writing about. And I apologize for this last post being so insanely late, but it was really a struggle to get anything coherent out what with the whole taking care of a nine-month old thing and not getting any sleep.

But the next time we go back to Slovakia, we'll be doing things a little differently. We'll definitely rent our own car, for starters. Not having to rely on family for transportation is crucial to being able to do at least some of what we'd like to do. Simon will be older, and we will feel less guilty about leaving him for a few evenings (or, gasp - even an entire day!) with his grandparents. We'll probably also go at a different time of year - maybe Spring or Fall, when the weather might be a bit more cooperative (although in Slovakia, as in much of Europe, it rains any time of year, so you could potentially get caught in a downpour no matter when you travel). And hopefully we'll have the whole traveling with a small kid thing down a bit better. It's doable, as the many families with small kids that you see at all the big international airports would probably attest, but it definitely takes practice.

This blog will return to its state of quasi-hibernation, but stay tuned: I do have a few ideas for future blog posts burbling around in my soupy, sleep-deprived brain.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 2 - Lučenec, Halič, and More

I suppose it goes without saying that traveling with a baby can be rough. Simon has had us on a  bizarre and exhausting sleep schedule whereby he wakes up around 4:30 am and, if we're lucky, he goes back to sleep around 5:30, and, if we're even luckier, we get to sleep a little more too. But this has meant that by 7:00 in the evening, when Simon normally goes to bed, we're completely wiped out and we end up involuntarily crashing around then too. Pathetic, I know.

For this reason, we've been taking it relatively easy on this trip and we're being far less ambitious with our plans and our time. Suffice it to say, we're not going to be taking any long train rides to Prague on this trip, and we'll likely be staying closer to home.

A Riveting Morning in Lučenec

On the Wednesday after Christmas day, we went into nearby Lučenec and piddled around. I've mentioned Lučenec before as being the closest town of any significance to Terezia's parents' village. It has a population of roughly 30,000, and for years its unemployment level has hovered around 14 percent. For most tourists there's really nothing to do or see in Lučenec. It's kind of a sad, grey, run-down town with lots of little casinos, commie-era bleakness, and lots of guys, both young and old, with bad haircuts and cheap track suits smoking and milling about like they've got nowhere to be, and women with unnaturally colored hair.

But when you walk through the very center of town, you can spot pockets of attractive, ornate, and colorful art nouveau facades and some old, appealingly crumbly buildings that hint at a time when the town held more importance and even exuded a bit of class. Lučenec was the capital of the historical Novohrad (New Castle) region when it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and remains the region's main town and economic center. Though governed by Hungarians for much of its history, it was conquered by the Hussites in the mid 1400s, and Ottomans took control of it for almost half of the 1500s and then again for nearly all of the 1600s.

Lučenec was decimated in the mid 1800s during an anti-Habsburg revolt, but its inhabitants managed to rebuild it in 10 years. The town also became a thriving industrial spot around that time with brickworks and tanneries, but that dwindled in the 20th century along with the town's importance, and it never really managed to recover. In the early 2000s, a proposed silicate mining project looked like it might turn Lučenec's fortunes around, but for whatever reason, it never got off the ground.

It's abundantly clear that the communists really did a number on Lučenec. Most notably, they razed a considerable portion of the downtown area to make room for a public square (Námestie Republiky) so sprawling and massive that it looks as if it were intended for military parades or showing off fleets of Soviet tanks (my friend James had a similar impression). But in 2015, a tacky, multi-level indoor shopping mall with an exterior that looks like it's encrusted in cheap hard candy, called Galéria, was built on the square. And yet, the square is so damn big that the mall only took up less than half of it. What remains of Námestie Republiky is still vast.

You can see here the vastness of the town's communist-era square, Námestie Republiky, even with the tacky shopping mall in the background.

Terezia has a connection to Lučenec. She went to a business academy there for secondary school, where students studied business management and administrative stuff. For a while, she lived at her grandparents' house in the nearby village Tomášovce (just to the northwest), and she would take the train into Lučenec each morning and walk across the downtown to school.

These days Lučenec is the town where people in surrounding villages like Podrečany go to shop at big grocery or department stores, and take care of various things like renewing your driver's license or going to the bank. Importantly, Lučenec has an awesome butcher shop that sells some of our very favorite Slovak sausages. Lučenec is also home to Záhradná, a reportedly Croat-run ice cream shop that makes the best ice cream I've found so far in all of Slovakia.

We strolled through Galéria, ambled around the old town, and then drove past the old business academy. To cap off our excursion, we stopped by the beautiful old synagogue, which recently underwent a massive restoration. Before World War II, Lučenec had a large Jewish population, and this grand synagogue, with capacity of 11,000, is just about all that remains of their history there. Like nearly all synagogues in Slovakia, this one was abandoned and neglected for decades after WWII, as the majority of Jews from Slovakia who survived the Holocaust did not return and fled for good (many had their homes/property taken, and they weren't going to get it back, so they had nothing to return to). Lučenec's synagogue was apparently used by the state to store artificial fertilizer for many years during communism, but from the 1980s onward it just sat there fenced in, boarded up, and strewn with weeds and vermin.

Lučenec's synagogue before restoration (in 2012)
And after restoration

For years most towns didn't know what to do with their abandoned synagogues and weren't able to fork over the huge sums of money needed to restore them. But in the last decade or so, some towns finally managed to find uses for their synagogues, typically with help from EU grants for the badly needed restoration, and turned them into art galleries, theaters, cultural centers, or places people can rent for weddings or other functions. Lučenec finally got around to restoring its synagogue several years ago, with help from a €2.3-million EU grant, and now the project is complete and the building has been turned into a multi-use cultural center.

Built in the mid 1920s, the synagogue was designed by Hungarian architect Lipot Barnhaum, who was well known at the time for his designs of another 20 or so synagogues all around Hungary. The synagogue was closed when we swung by, so we only saw the exterior. It's a gorgeous building, though, so I'm really glad that they didn't bulldoze it or let it fall completely apart.

Not far from the synagogue are a couple of narrow streets with older looking houses. I'm told that this is where the town's Jewish residents lived. When they were rounded up and sent away to concentration camps during WWII, locals looted the homes and gradually commandeered the property.

The outer ring of Lučenec is pretty much all communist-era paneláks, and there are an awful lot of them. When driving through that part of town, it's easy to see why people here drink so much.

Halič Castle

Halič is a charmingly ramshackle village just to the northwest of Lučenec that boasts an attractive, striking castle. A major and ambitious decade-long restoration project for the castle was finally completed in 2016, and it's now a five-star hotel with a cafe, restaurant, and spa. Terezia and I took her mom and Simon up to the castle later that day to have coffee and cake in the cafe and to check the place out.

You can see the Halič castle sitting majestically on its hilltop from miles around in all directions, and I've always admired it from the various roads below. Its Renaissance-Baroque style and six ornate dome-capped towers really make it stand out. Halič is also notable for the fact that it's one of the few castles in the region that wasn't obliterated by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Hussites, etc., and is not lying in ruin today. (It actually was destroyed in some mid-18th-century conflict, but quickly rebuilt in its more Baroque style and made to look more palace-like.) I'd always wanted to see it up close, but during its restoration it was totally fenced off, and if you approached the padlocked chainlink gate near the bottom of the hill, vicious German shepherds would come charging down the driveway on the other side of the fence and bark angrily.

The first written mention of the castle was in 1386, though the village of Halič supposedly dates back to the 12th century, and it's possible a castle in a different form existed at that time too. Interestingly, the castle managed to remain under the ownership of one family, the noble Hungarian Forgáchs, from 1554 to 1948, which is unusual for a region where castles seemed to constantly change hands.

[I'm just guessing here, but I wonder if the Forgáchs lost the castle, and were expelled from what was by that point Czechoslovakia, because of the post-WWII Beneš decrees, since they were Hungarian. The controversial Beneš decrees expelled millions of ethnic German and Hungarian inhabitants from Czechoslovakia in the years immediately following WWII, many of whom had roots in the area going back generations, and often no roots in modern-day Germany or Hungary where they were forced to flee to. Read more about the tragic and devastating mess that resulted from the Beneš decrees here.]

At any rate, during communism, the state used the castle as a mental hospital from the early 1950s until the 80s, which adds a potentially disturbing layer to its history, as I can only imagine how people with severe mental illness were treated by the communist state. According to the hotel's website, the building underwent considerable reconstruction in the 1950s to convert it to a psych ward, all of which had to be undone for its recent restoration. From the early 90s onward, the castle was abandoned by the state and left to deteriorate at the hands of vandals and mother nature.

Today when you approach the castle, it's immediately clear a lot of money was pumped into its restoration. Honestly, it's a little bit posh and glitzy in a Habsburg/Hofburg Palace kind of way for my tastes, but even so, it's incredibly nice (and almost weirdly decadent) for an area known more for high unemployment and relative poverty. The castle would probably seem more at home in Vienna or Bratislava, but at the same time, the surrounding village below and the panoramic views of the surrounding rural scenery are quite picturesque, so visually, at least, it's a fitting location for a hotel of this ilk. If it brings more money and jobs to the area, and maybe a few more tourists, all the better for it.

As for the restoration, a massive modern glass dome has been installed over the castle's big central courtyard, which has been turned into a spacious cafe. The hotel has a reportedly good (and sort of pricey) restaurant in a separate (and very Baroque) room off to the right. The upper floors house the hotel's rooms, and I believe the spa is down below (in the former dungeon, perhaps?).

It was kind of fun to sit there and take in all the detail and the vastness of the space while sipping drinks and keeping Simon occupied. Simon was being very chatty and charmingly oblivious to how his babbling was reverberating throughout the echoey space. There were a few other babies there, so no one seemed to mind. The cafe's coffee wasn't the most amazing in the world, but their hot chocolate was tasty and rich. I just don't like being served coffee by people in bowties and black vests, though the service was much friendlier than normal for Slovakia, and it felt more laid back than the posh appearance of the place would suggest.

The castle appears to be doing okay so far, and the cafe was reasonably full when we were there, but I do have to wonder just whom this hotel is catering to. I think it's way too far off the beaten path for most American/Rick Steves-reading tourists, not to mention most British or western European travelers, most of whom seldom venture beyond Bratislava. I doubt there's enough business-related activity in the region to lure anyone on out-of-town business trips either. I suspect its clientele consists mostly of well-off Slovaks and Hungarians, maybe Russians too, and possibly some Czechs. Spa culture is huge among Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, and other central and eastern Europeans, and the facility's spa probably plays a big part in luring clientele. The castle also has banquet rooms that can be rented for weddings and other functions, so that's surely another source of revenue. Either way, I'm glad that centuries-old buildings like this are being preserved, but I hope it can stay in business.

For such a swanky hotel, their cheaper double rooms are fairly reasonable, starting at around €140 per night, which actually includes time in the spa. For all but the most well-off Slovaks that's a pretty outrageous price, but by broader European standards it's not bad for a special splurge-y hotel stay.

In fact, the next time Terezia and I are staying in Podrečany, we definitely want to book at least one night there and leave Simon with her parents for some much-needed alone time. It wasn't going to happen on this trip because Simon is still a bit of a handful - even though we could desperately use a night off! - but Terezia warned her mom that on our next visit they'll definitely get to have Simon for at least a night.

If you're interested, check out the history section of the hotel's website for more information, as well as some old pre-communist photos of the castle.

Dull Vígľaš Castle, Detva, and an Unfortunately Named Cafe

The following day it was raining, with the sky an oppressively dreary grey, and we went to visit a childhood friend of Terezia's who currently lives in the town of Detva, and who recently had a baby daughter who is just a few months older than Simon. We had some time to kill before meeting her, so we drove a little ways up the highway northwest, past Detva, to have lunch at some newish restaurant by the village of Vígľaš and to check out the newly restored Vígľaš castle.

Near the bottom of the hill at Vígľaš, we couldn't help but notice the perplexingly named Brexit Cafe. I'd love to know what the hell the owners were thinking. Are they enthusiastic far-right Euroskeptics? Were they hoping to corner the market on rightwing nationalist Brit tourists? Or were they just trying to come up with something topical and catchy? Why name your cafe after something that's so polarizing and controversial (and, in my humble opinion, such a colossal and profoundly idiotic mistake)? At any rate, this was so surreal that we had to stop and take a photo.

What the hell? The perplexingly named Brexit Cafe in Vígľaš

I don't have as much to say about Vígľaš castle, in part because we didn't spend much time there. Like Halič, Vígľaš was recently reconstructed/restored and converted into a snazzy hotel/spa/restaurant, but unlike Halič, its looks don't make quite as much of an impression. Also, Vígľaš was in a significantly more ruinous state before its reconstruction than Halič (its roof was gone and the interior was gutted and completely overgrown with trees and foliage) and probably required a lot more work.

I always used to admire the castle from below on the train to Podrečany when it would pass around the base of the hill, and from the car when driving by on the highway. However, the reconstruction job seems to have made the whole thing look a little boring and less evocative.

Here's Vígľaš castle in a photo I took when passing it on the highway, back in February 2012, with the reconstruction well underway.

The fact that the exterior walls were coated in drab, boring grey/beige plaster really doesn't help, which is made all the more noticeable by a few rectangular patches on the facade that expose the cool, rustic stonework beneath it. The castle would've looked much cooler - not to mention more medieval and castle-like - if they'd left all the stonework exposed. Notice in the first picture of the castle up above, from 2012, that with the exception of that crenelated tower on the right, most of the stonework was still exposed, and it looked more striking. (It's not the most amazing castle, architecturally, to begin with, though.)

Notice the patch of exposed stonework on the wall here. This castle would've looked way more interesting if they'd left the entire exterior that way.

Like most castles in the region, Vígľaš was owned by a cast of Hungarian noblemen, and for a time in the 1300s, it was connected through one resident to The Hungarian Brotherhood-Knights of St. George. The castle went through the usual round of renovations and extensions over the centuries, but managed to survive relatively intact until WWII, during which it was severely damaged.

Vígľaš has two courtyards, and this is the outer one where you first enter the complex.

We didn't go inside, but the interior looks nice in photos.

Detva, where Terezia's friend lives, is actually where Terezia was born (there was no maternity hospital in Terezia's nearby hometown, Hriňová; Detva is a noticeably bigger town than Hriňová). Detva is known around the country for proudly carrying on Slovakia's folk traditions, including folk music and dance, and the detailed and colorful kroj patterns on the traditional peasant garb. The town hosts a big folklore festival every year in the summer. When you enter Detva from the highway, it's all blocky, grey, dreary commie-era paneláks, leaving you to wonder how on earth this town became the steward of the country's folk heritage. But if you keep driving deeper into it, you see streets lined with unusually well-preserved traditional, long, narrow-fronted rural houses which people appear to be living in. Unfortunately, it was raining too hard to get any decent photos.

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