Monday, May 28, 2012

Help! Bratislava is being eaten alive by billboards!

It's true - Bratislava (well, the whole country, really) is suffering from an explosion of billboards. People find highly imaginative and invasive ways to squeeze billboards and large banner-style ads onto any space available. Some of them are even thrown right over large sections of the facades of buildings, directly over the windows, obscuring the views of the poor folks inside and cheapening the structures they cover. Walk anywhere just outside Bratislava's historical center and you'll be assaulted by eye-level billboards covering every inch of fencing around green spaces, vacant lots, and parking lots; massive banner ads stretched over both residential and commercial buildings; and large, fairly low-sitting billboards cluttering stretches of major roads at intervals of 100 feet or less. Many sidewalks and pedestrianized passageways are similarly encrusted in loud, bright, garish billboards. It's an unrelenting onslaught of advertising that's gotten way out of control.

Billboards line this stretch of the otherwise nice Postova, a pedestrianized street that runs from Hodzovo namestie to SNP namestie. 

I've read that even 10 years ago the situation wasn't so dire; that it was more in the last decade when people realized they could make a killing by renting billboard space. And they took to it with gusto, apparently with very little regulation. I suspect it's a symptom of the "turbo-capitalism" that gripped the nation (and much of central Europe) in the aftermath of communism's demise. Many of the former Eastern Bloc countries lunged toward capitalism in an attempt to catch up with the West and reap all of the supposed benefits. But in doing so, regulation often went out the window. Sadly, the result is that we are bombarded at nearly every turn by loud, ugly, jarring billboard advertising that clutters the urban landscape.

Luckily, you don't really see billboards in the historical center, but you have only to walk a few feet beyond the center's original medieval boundary to be suddenly surrounded by them.

This banner ad is on the side of a historical building just below the castle, technically a historical area. It overlooks the freeway coming off the UFO Bridge.  
Another common sight in Bratislava. People cram billboards/banner ads into any available space.

This building is across the street from SNP Namestie, a popular square used for important events that lies just outside the medieval historical center. No doubt, it's an ugly building, but these massive and hideous banner ads do not help!
Colossal banner ad on the side of an apartment building in Kamenne Namestie, right outside the historical center. 

When the facade of St. Martins cathedral was getting a facelift, the scaffolding around its tower and steeple was covered by large, hideous advertisements. Contrast that with Siena or Florence, Italy, where when the major cathedrals there had their facades scrubbed, life-size, color graphics of the facades were stretched over the scaffolding so that people could at least have an idea of what was being restored behind the cladding.

Now, I totally get that in some cases (perhaps including St. Martins), the advertising on the scaffolding is likely what's funding these typically costly restorations. It's ugly as sin, but preserving historical structures is a good cause, and besides, it's temporary. St. Martins, as nice as it is, just doesn't have the stature or draw of, say, Siena's Duomo, so it probably has to look to other alternatives to fund its restorations.

However, a bastion along the medieval wall just up from the St Martins has been encased in scaffolding and covered in tacky, oversized ads for the last couple of years. Yet, it doesn't look like any work has been done on the bastion. Apparently, the company responsible threw up the scaffolding, rented out the ad space, and just left it. Was the city suddenly unable to pay for the restoration project, so they left it on hold in a state of billboard limbo until they could cough up the dough to complete the job? Regardless, it's unfortunate that there is not some other alternative. I'd really like to know more about how renovations of historical structures are funded, both in Slovakia and across the EU in general. Having to rely on/resort to billboards, especially for major historical sights in an EU capital, is sad.

Billboards on the medieval bastion.

One of the most egregious examples of unchecked billboard insanity can be seen along the Devinska cesta highway between Bratislava and Devin. This stretch of road traverses a scenic natural setting filled with lush foliage, and runs alongside a tree-lined canal that splinters off from the Danube. Yet, the canal side of the highway is littered with large, tacky billboards that sit a little above eye-level and appear about every 100 feet! What a way to cheapen an otherwise lovely road!

I was thoroughly shocked to see photos of communist-era landmark Hotel Kyjev from about four years ago when its western (and most visible) side was completely covered by a colossal banner style advertisement. (Check it out). Obviously, Hotel Kyjev ain't Brunelleschi's Duomo, but still, it's inconceivable to me that a city could allow this kind of thing, particularly on a building that's increasingly valued for its architecture and history (not to mention, I feel sorry for any patrons thinking they'd get a nice 12th floor view over the city). Seriously, whoever allowed this to happen should be publicly humiliated by being forced to spend the rest of his or her life as a human billboard.

Anyhow, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon this article, according to which Renáta Zmajkovičová, a deputy speaker of parliament, is calling for laws to limit Slovakia's crazy, out-of-control billboards. According to this article, "Zmajkovičová feels the time is right to deal with the issue of roadside advertising, and to examine also how billboards are changing the face of the countryside and towns. Saying Slovakia has more billboards than trees, she feels that the municipal architect should have a say on the placement of billboards and other advertising as it changes the character of towns."

Granted, this is an ugly new building, but it does happen to sit directly across the street from the Danube embankment. Any other city would understand that placing colossal banner ads along the riverfront is a bad idea. I really don't think you would see this along the downtown riverfronts of Budapest or Prague. 

Of course, what's shocking about this (and yet, kind of not) is that this article implicitly states that Slovakia currently has zero billboard regulation. Some of Slovakia's neighbors, like Austria and Italy for example, have strict regulations regarding where billboards can be placed, as well as how large and how brightly lit they can be. But apparently Slovakia did not get the meme.


I wish Zmajkovičová all the luck in the world, because she's going to need it. Lobbyists will be unrelenting and ruthless when opposing her proposals, because, as is stated in the article, billboards have become an extremely lucrative business. But I'm happy to see that there are elected officials who at least recognize that there is a serious problem and that it really does cheapen Slovakia's scenery. In a Europe where economies rely increasingly on foreign tourism, keeping tacky billboards to a minimum is a good idea. Obviously, you've got to strike a balance between inviting new business opportunities and preserving the qualities in one's country that attract visitors in the first place. I hope Slovakia can learn how to do this. If not, I guarantee the onslaught of hideous ads will only help cement Slovakia's status as a mere "day-trip" destination for those passing through to its neighbors. 

You gotta love how the image has to be cut so as to conform to the "steps" in the upper righthand corner. Must sell every inch of space!
A billboard on the pedestrian path along the right bank of the Danube. Is this what you'd like to see on your leisurely stroll along the Danube?
Even the Manderla building's got one. This is the billboard that was knocked down by a nasty gust of wind and came within inches of hitting a woman who was walking by

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bratislava's Planter Boxes Update!

Some of you may remember my rant about Bratislava being overrun with empty concrete planter boxes. I wanted to believe that buried deep inside each box are some kind of slimy alien larvae, lying dormant and waiting patiently for central command to order them to simultaneously spring from the planters and overtake the city by waging a psychic war and melting our brains. The larvae, of course, are so toxic that only weeds and half-dead juniper can grow in the planter boxes. I may have to rework that hypothesis, because a couple weeks ago I noticed that somebody has planted several types of small, colorful flowers in the stretch of concrete planter boxes along Kamenne Namestie on the Spitalksa street side, by Tesco/My Bratislava. Similar types of flowers have also been planted in a row of concrete planters right across the street, in front of the Manderla building.

However, many of the planters in the city still look like this:

I hope that these flowers will fill out and grow more, because at this point they don't really stand out among the large, boxy, concrete containers they've been planted in. You don't really notice the flowers so much unless you're standing really close to them.

Of course, this raises the question, why not plant something in these boxes that will last for a longer period of time throughout the year? (Something other than juniper, of course). These planters were already barren last fall, so it seems like they are empty for at least 6-7 months out of the year. That raises a second question: if the planters are sitting there empty for more than half the year, then what's the point?

I'm kind of thinking they should remove all of the boxes (since they're an eyesore, especially when left empty all year), dig out some holes in the sidewalks, and just go crazy planting more trees. Throughout the past month, Bratislava has transformed into a lush explosion of green, as all of the deciduous trees have become full and leafy again. Just as I was getting used to the city being cold and grey, it suddenly became quite warm and colorful. Some streets and public squares are now shaded by a dense canopy of green! And the greenery helps balance out the city's concrete greyness (a greyness that's exacerbated by all the concrete planter boxes!).

Hviezdoslavovo Namestie in Spring. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Job update: Terka found one!

It's taken a while, what with this dreadful economy (just under 14% unemployment) and being in this strange new country where chefs seem to be valued about as highly as grouchy shlop-serving ladies from school cafeterias, but Terezia has just been hired as the chef for the US ambassador to Slovakia. The contract was signed the other day, so it's official now. She wowed the ambassador and his wife with her mean cooking skills and her Alice Waters-inspired philosophy/approach of using only the freshest seasonal ingredients to create flavorful, well-prepared, non-fussy, yet healthy dishes. It really makes sense that they would pick her out of what was apparently a deluge of candidates (at least I was confident they would), since she became a chef and honed her skills in San Francisco, and she understands the discerning palette of those Western gourmand types.

She's not cooking at the embassy, but rather, at the ambassador's residence, where they host functions for varying numbers of guests every week. They have enjoyed everything that she's prepared so far, and they're quite appreciative of her ability to create inventive, fresh, flavorful salads (the word salad does not appear to exist in the culinary vocabulary of some Slovaks, if you know what I mean!), and she nailed the macaroons, a favorite dessert of theirs that they wanted her to make. The nature of the work is quite similar to a gig she had in 2009-2011 working for a dental academy in Foster City (where she cooked exquisite meals for dentists traveling from all over the world to attend multi-day seminars on new dental methods and technology), so she is feeling in her element.

At any rate, feel free to congratulate her!!!

(As always, photos of nifty places and things can be found by clicking here!).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Visit From Friends!

My good friend Jason and his brother Dan came through Bratislava for a couple days as part of a Central European vacation they're doing together. They rolled in after spending several days in Vienna, and they took off this morning for Budapest. Ever since Jason moved to Paris last year, he and I have been trying to figure out a way to meet up since we both happen to be on the same continent, so this turned out to be the perfect opportunity. Plus, this is the first time I've hung out and interacted with not just friends, but anyone from the US since coming here in October. We put them up at our place for a couple nights, and I got to play tour guide, and wore 'em out showing them around.

We walked a ton. Jason's brother had a list of things he wanted to see, and the fact that we managed to hit all of them in a day and a half is pretty impressive. The first afternoon, we leisurely strolled through the major sights and squares of the historical center, as well as the castle. But they really wanted to get a taste of authentic Bratislava, not just the whitewashed touristy bits. When Terezia and I told them about Miletička, Bratislava's outdoor public food market, they were instantly intrigued and we took the tram there the next morning. 

Miletička is located pretty well outside the historical center, nowhere near the tourist path, and its clientele is strictly local. The market has a real rough-around-the-edges charm, as the old vendor stalls scream Communist-era, which separates the place visually from the squeaky clean yuppie havens of Naschmarkt in Vienna, or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. But having said that, while Miletička's vendors do offer a colorful array of seasonal veggies, fruits, and herbs, you can't really find more exotic things there that are more common at Naschmarkt or the SF Ferry Building, like medjool dates or certain types of wild mushrooms (morels, chanterelles, etc.). Still, Miletička is bursting with local flavor. 

Jason and Dan wanted to try langoš from the langoš stand, as that's a local specialty. (According to Rick Steves and Wikipedia, langoš are Hungarian in origin, but they seem to be extremely common in Slovakia, which makes sense given how the two cultures have intermingled so much over the centuries). Langoš are round disks of fried dough, slathered in garlic paste and sour cream, and sprinkled with grated cheese (some locals like ketchup on them as well). Typical heart attack Slovak food! I'm totally spoiled because no langoš can beat the fresh-off-the-skillet variety that I sometimes get at Terezia's mom's house. But the stand had a steady line of locals, and Jason and Dan were happy. 

Jason contemplates a langoš.

While devouring langoš, we even got to witness a couple of old drunken homeless guys get into a shouting match, which quickly escalated into a sword fight with their walking canes (I kid you not!). Like I said, lots of local color. 

From there we headed back to the center and I took 'em through Kapitulska, which they appreciated quite a bit. Bratislava's historical center is undeniably beautiful, but its main squares and roads are a little too whitewashed from the thorough scrub-downs they've received over the last few years, so they lack a bit of the character of grittier historical centers like, say, Siena, Italy, to name one example. But Kapitulska and its adjacent streets have so far avoided the scrub-down, so they retain a visually stunning, aged, crumbly kind of ambience. 

From there we went to Devin castle, and tromped through the ruins and took in the views. We nearly missed the bus back into town, which only comes once an hour. When it appeared, we ran towards it, but Dan shot ahead and threw himself between the doors just as they were closing so as to wedge them open while Jason and I caught up and hopped on. The bus driver, a grumpy older guy, yelled a bunch of things at us which, obviously, none of us understood, and then shook his head in disgust before getting back in his seat to drive off. Stupid tourists!

For a nice contrast after Devin, we took the 93 bus into the depths of Petrzalka. Jason and Dan were really curious to see Petrzalka up close. The place looks so brutal, monolithic, and awe-inspiring when seen from the Bratislava castle across the river, that they just had to get a glimpse of what life is like right smack in the middle of it. I've touched on this before in my Petrzalka post, but in the US, we don't really have anonymous, concrete, council housing estates that are anywhere near the size and scale of Petrzalka. To locals, it's just another district, like any other in the city. But for people like us, it truly is surreal to see such a vast area of the city made up almost entirely of these concrete monstrosities.

We decided this is our favorite style of panelak - the really long, massive ones that have a row of shops along the bottom.  

Next on the list was Slavin, the Soviet WWII monument and cemetery/make-out point/skater hang-out that's at the top of the hill behind the historical center. Views of the city were admired and analyzed. Jason remarked (and I concurred) that the hills around the Stare Mesto almost seem to have a mediterranean vibe, crossed with a bit of Berkeley hills. 

We also spent some time wandering the neighborhood at the foot of the hill, around Palisady, Panenska, and Kozia, which Jason and Dan really dug. I think this area holds a little more appeal than the pedestrianized historical center because it's lined with beautiful historical facades, yet the buildings feel more lived in, and most of them haven't been scrubbed to a sheen, so they've still got cracks and missing chunks of plaster, and haven't been painted in decades. Couple that with a hip independent bookstore/cafe called Art Forum that just so happened to have several issues of a Czech magazine called Full Moon, which ran a feature on Jason's band not too long ago (and for which Jason has contributed a few articles), and you've got the makings of a fairly happening area.  

For food, Jason and Dan stuck pretty strictly to traditional Slovak dishes at all the restaurants we went to, most of which they seemed to like. The award for most all-around memorable restaurant experience goes to Omama, a cool, funky place that I mentioned a few posts ago. Omama's ambience is hard to beat, with its colorful, wall-to-wall vintage advertising signs and worn out old Communist-era furniture. When we walked in, there happened to be an open mic night going on, and a few people were taking turns singing old show tunes in Slovak with piano accompaniment. The place was alive and packed with locals, and everyone thoroughly dug it. It was also amusing to see Jason dig his way out of the massive plate of sviečková that he ordered.

Jason and Dan seemed to like Bratislava overall. I mean, they're both aware that it's no Vienna or Rome, but at the same time, they appreciated its real, lived-in, gritty, funky character. The Communist-era structures really do add a distinctive and fascinating layer that you just don't get in western European cities. Plus, Jason and Dan definitely liked getting to see some of the stuff that's a bit more off the tourist radar that only a "local" would show them. I also think it was kind of interesting for them to see a city and country which, frankly, I don't think they ever would have considered visiting had I not been living there. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bratislava's Original Jewish Cemetery (Update!)

Some of you may recall my post from March about Bratislava's Jewish cemetery, in which I had some lingering questions about its age, as well as the origins of the original Jewish cemetery (which no longer exists) that was located down the hill from it. In April I got the chance to conduct a lengthy interview with Viera Kamenická - one of the directors at Bratislava's Museum of Jewish Culture - about the history of Bratislava's ill-fated Jewish quarter (I'll explain the reason for the interview some other time in another post). She kindly and generously provided me with a wealth of information, including what, exactly, happened to Bratislava's original Jewish cemetery.

This first cemetery was located at the foot of the castle hill, along the banks of the Danube, and was operational from 1696-1847. By 1847, the cemetery contained over 6000 graves, and it had became so crowded that bodies had to be buried directly on top of each other. There were three layers of bodies buried within it (looking not unlike Prague's jam-packed Jewish cemetery). With the cemetery's close proximity to the Danube, flooding was an ongoing problem as well. In 1847, a larger plot of land just up the hill was given to the Jewish community for a new cemetery. Jews were buried only in this new cemetery from that point on. That is the cemetery that Terezia and I explored back in March.

Bratislava's old Jewish cemetery. Notice the Danube in the background. 

The old cemetery was of obvious historical importance, but its status was elevated by the fact that it contained the graves of several hugely important figures, most notably an Orthodox rabbi called Chatam Sofer. Sofer had a monumental impact on Orthodox Judaism, and he lived and worked in Bratislava for over thirty years, until his death in the 1830s.

At any rate, in late 1942, around the height of Jewish persecution in Slovakia during WWII, the city decided it needed to run a major highway along the right bank of the Danube, as well as a tunnel through the adjacent castle hill, that would spill out right into the cemetery. Given that the cemetery was directly in its path, and given that Slovakia was at that time governed by an anti-semitic, Nazi-puppet regime, they simply built the road right over it. However, the Jewish community somehow managed to convince the regime to let them preserve a cluster of twenty three graves in a corner of the cemetery. These were of great significance to the local community since they included the graves of Sofer and several other important rabbis. Many other graves were apparently exhumed and relocated in the newer cemetery.

Workers exhuming graves that were to be relocated in the newer cemetery up the hill.
The original make-shift mausoleum for Sofer et al. before the road was laid on top of it.
The graves of Sofer and his immediate neighbors were walled in with concrete, essentially creating a mausoleum, and the road was laid down directly over it. Much later, in the early 1980s, the city ran a tram line through the tunnel, and the tram tracks were built over this road. For decades Sofer's grave could only be accessed by entering the mausoleum through a manhole-like cover in the road, and descending into a dusty, dank, claustrophobic, poorly lit space. The whole thing was thrown together quite haphazardly. Vertical space was so limited that the tops of some of the taller headstones had to be chopped off and placed at their bases. Given the bleak situation during WWII, it was kind of miraculous that Jews were allowed even this, so it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. For the next 60 years, it was not really possible to visit the graves, and I've read that you could sometimes spot Jewish pilgrims actually praying at the side of the road by the tram tracks and tunnel entrance, over the general vicinity of Sofer's grave.

Compare this 80s-era shot with the first photo up above, taken from about the same vantage point. 
Well after Communism, in the early 2000s, the mausoleum was finally restored and renovated into an infinitely more presentable space, in keeping with its sacred nature. The whole place was drastically overhauled: the ceiling was elevated, the walkways inside were improved, the headstones were restored, new lighting was installed, etc. The tram tracks were rerouted around the mausoleum, because vibrations from the trams constantly running overhead were causing considerable structural damage to the mausoleum and its contents. At ground level a proper entrance was constructed, with stairs leading down into the mausoleum.

Check out this cool 4 1/2 minute video I found that documents through a series of chronological photos the old cemetery, from its pre-destruction years up through the new and improved mausoleum sight:

It's obviously quite sad that a cemetery filled with so much history was destroyed. Prague, to name one example, is mighty lucky that its Jewish cemetery didn't meet a similar fate. It's just one more way in which the history of not just Bratislava's Jewish community, but the history of the city as a whole, was wiped out.

I know, you've heard enough of my whining about the rampant destruction that Bratislava's historical section suffered throughout the 20th century. But damn, this city would look so much nicer had its officials and planners felt like preserving more of it (or if they'd at least introduced new development in a more sensitive and thoughtful way). And the fact that the history and heritage of a once-thriving Jewish community was almost completely obliterated in the process, makes it all the more depressing. Tourists who come to Bratislava today are only seeing a fraction of what this city used to be, and they're getting an incomplete picture of its history.

(Hey! Click here to see recent photos I've taken of cool places and nifty things!)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pozor! Bratislava: An Obstacle Course of Peril and Pain

Bratislava is not a city for the accident prone. Something I've found consistently amusing during my stay here is what I like to call the ubiquity of perilous urban obstacles. By that I mean, the city seems like a veritable obstacle course, with streets dotted with loose or missing paving stones; public stairways with loose or broken steps and smooth, slippery surfaces (and sometimes no handrails!); and sidewalks full of gaping cracks, crater-like dips, and wavy warps. You know, the kinds of things that would throw typical Americans into a total lawsuit frenzy.

Steps leading to Bratislava's St. Nicholas church.

But people in Slovakia apparently have a different mindset, i.e., it seems like they pay attention to their surroundings. And if they do suffer the occasional tumble, they are more likely to grumble, "goddamn cheap city, why can't they fix this sidewalk," than conceive of taking anyone to court over it, and they would most likely just get up and get on with their lives.

(Once again, Marek Bennett has a cartoon that illustrates all of this wonderfully).

Small paving stones on Hviezdoslavovo namestie; back in April, one of these little stones got lodged into some tram tracks and caused a tram to derail (nobody was injured). 

Part of this problem stems from the fact that Bratislava simply doesn't seem to have enough money to run around and make everything idiot-proof. Of course, a lot of the money that could go towards maintaining the city's pockmarked roads and walkways is probably ending up in someone's pockets. But the city is lucky that people here don't seem to be so litigious. In America, people are so lawsuit crazy that cities have to be obsessive about making sure any cracks or holes in the sidewalk are patched, all public stairways have some kind of traction on the steps and hand railings to prevent slipping, edges of train platforms are brightly colored and well marked, as are protruding beams and random sudden steps. Even children's playgrounds, once typically lined with a layer of tanbark, now all seem to have thick rubber or cork padding on the ground to cushion the falls of kids from jungle gyms. Cities in the litigious US have to go to these lengths in order to cover their asses.

I nearly ate it once when absentmindedly stepping into one of these while gazing up at the glorious facades along Michalska ulica. 
Sometimes these loose cobblestones make a fun suction-y sound when stepped upon after a good rain. 

Most of these little urban hazards aren't going to kill anyone, however, they do occasionally cross the line to where there is potential for tragedy. On a nasty, stormy February afternoon, Terezia and I were on a tram when we witnessed a powerful gust of wind knock down the entire aluminum frame of this billboard. It came within inches of hitting an elderly lady who just happened to be walking by when it fell. Had she been a foot to her right, she could have been killed or severely injured. Of course, when we told Slovak friends and family about this, they all agreed it was terrible, but followed that up with a sentiment along the lines of "but yeah, that's Slovakia for you."

Need to cross the street but happen to be confined to a wheelchair? Well screw you, Bub!

I'm constantly amazed at how unaccommodating Slovakia (hell, pretty much all of Europe) is with regard to the disabled. Sidewalks at intersections with no curb ramps are ubiquitous in Bratislava! To be sure, there are a good number of sidewalks that do have wheelchair accessible curb ramps, but there are just as many that do not, and there's no rhyme or reason as to why some do and others don't. This issue is not exclusive to Slovakia - it's rampant all over Europe. Wheelchair accessibility is really another can of worms, however, so I won't dwell on it, but it's safe to say that it would be pretty much impossible for people in wheelchairs to live self-sufficient, independent lives in most European cities. (On the flip side, I doubt most European cities could ever afford to make everything wheelchair friendly, especially in today's economic climate). (And hell, if you're disabled, don't even think about trying to get on a bus or tram, or in most public buildings for that matter!).

These steps look shoddy enough, but when covered in snow or rain during the winter, they become treacherously slippery due to their super smooth surface. It's almost kind of comical. Also, notice the complete lack of handrail, and how the concrete along the left side, which could be used to save one's fall, is typically covered in many inches of snow during those slippery winter months. Pozor!

Of course I wouldn't want to give the impression that all of Bratislava is a torn up minefield, and I'm sure you could find much worse in Ukraine or Russia. It's just that after spending a little time here, you start to notice these things and compare/contrast them with other places. Also, I suppose I should commend many of Bratislava's women, who manage to effortlessly navigate these uneven streets in high stiletto heels. Plus, I adore those perilously ankle-twisting cobblestoned streets like Kapitulska, and I hope that they always remain that way.

I love how there's nothing atop this thigh-high wall to keep clumsy or drunk pedestrians from falling over onto the freeway directly below. 
Oh, but wait - it gets better! Turn around 180 degrees from the spot in the above photo, and that thigh-high wall turns into this!
I've seen a few people narrowly avoid stepping/stumbling into this sudden 12" drop when ambling along. In America this would likely have a hefty iron railing around it. 

(Psst! Check out recent photos from Budapest here, and photos of other places and things here).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Uber-Cheap Lunch Menus and Gastro Listky

Shortly after moving to Bratislava, Terezia's brother Tony told us that locals pride themselves on their ability to find insanely cheap lunch menus. In fact, it's quite common to find 2-course lunch specials costing as little as 3,50. According to Tony, most locals won't even think about spending more than 4,00 on a lunch, and even that is pushing it. These lunch specials typically include a bowl of soup, a main course, and occasionally a glass of Kofola. Some people decide where they want to have lunch by going to this website - - which lists the daily lunch specials of all of the restaurants in a particular area.

Needless to say, for both Americans and Slovakia's westerly European neighbors, these specials are dirt cheap! However, when viewed in relation to how much the average working Slovak earns, they're actually not as hot of a deal as they seem, as is nicely illustrated here and here.

But no matter, most Slovaks pay for their lunches with gastro listky. Gastro listky are lunch tickets which employers are required by law to provide for their employees, and they will easily cover most sub 4,00 lunches. Here is a brief, grammatically iffy explanation of gastro listky:

The voucher or ticket allow you to consume a main meal in a wide range of restaurant or bars. This can solve in a fast and effective way, the obligation established by the law for employers to provide meals to its employees. At the same time helping to improve the social environment in the workplace through financial and tax advantages.

I have also seen people using gastro listky at grocery stores like Tesco.

But with gastro listky, workers are not getting a totally free lunch. The employer typically covers 55% of the monthly allotment, while the rest is deducted from the employee's paycheck. However, that's still not a bad deal, as it means the employee is spending 36 per month on lunch rather than 72, which makes going out for lunch a slightly more affordable prospect for many people.

But wait a minute - 45% of 3,60 may be an okay deal for workers, but how do these crazy cheap prices affect restaurants? On one level, it does ensure that most restaurants are full during lunchtime, which also has the benefit of helping the local economy. But even though the average wage in Slovakia is significantly lower than in most Western European countries (less than half!), that doesn't mean food is proportionately less expensive. As a result, restaurants really have to stretch their ingredients and exercise a little creativity when coming up with a dish for which they can charge 3,60 and still make a profit. While some restaurants dish out lunch specials that are truly and surprisingly delicious and filling, others seem to scrape the bottom of the barrel for old crap that they want to get rid of, the results of which are like having dreadful cafeteria-style shlop dumped onto a plate.

(Also, restaurants lose a bit of money when they cash in the gastro listky. The companies that issue them take a small cut, which is how they make their money, and which obviously further decreases whatever profit the restaurant is making).

And asking locals for tips or judging a restaurant by how crowded it is will not always work. For example, Tony told us many of his colleagues at IBM absolutely love this restaurant near the Danube called Be About. When Terezia and I went to check it out, the place was so packed you needed a shoehorn to get inside. We snatched the last free table in the joint, and saw people literally lining up at the door behind us. The waitresses appeared harried and frazzled, while the noise level indicated a happy and boisterous clientele. However, the food was relentlessly awful (beer-battered chicken that tasted more like dish soap-battered chicken), while our server kept bringing Terezia the wrong dishes. She even charged Terezia for the slightly more expensive lunch special that she didn't order, and Terezia had to go find a menu to prove to her that she'd made a mistake with the bill. There was NOTHING about this place that could ever compel us to go back, and yet it was a freaking madhouse!

Strangely, a restaurant called Omama, which has every square inch of its walls covered in these amazing old advertisements, has served two pretty good meals out of three (that third one was not so good), and while there are always some other people there, it's never bursting at the seams like the dreadful Be About. It has infinitely cooler decor, better food, and somewhat friendlier service, but somehow, the dreadful Be About is the place that's always packed. I just don't get it.

The inside of Omama
Tony thinks that most people just don't really care. They're happy to find any cheap lunch that's at least edible, and it's an excuse to get out of the office for an hour. But, Be About's specials aren't any more expensive than Omama's, so who knows? Maybe people prefer Be About's trendy night club ambience, or perhaps the two good meals we had at Omama were a fluke? (Another popular place, called Pulitzer, tends to serve better than average food, has nicer than average decor, and fills up quickly, although their specials hover at the 4 range).

The current crop of trendy, swanky high-end restaurants, like Le Monde or Flowers, offer lunch specials as well, but typically in the 12 range, which is still a good deal considering how much more you'd have to pay for the same dish at dinner. But this also means you're probably only going to see locals of the well-heeled variety eating at these places.

If you want to take advantage of cheap lunch specials, it's imperative that you get to these restaurants early. Many of them fill up completely by noon, and some places run out of their specials by 12:30. But if you want eat lunch as the Slovaks do, you'll start keeping an eye out for these cheap lunch specials, scouring the menus that are always posted out in front of the restaurants.

(Check out recent photos here!)