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. 

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