Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 3

Before I get into our third and final installment of this series, I feel oddly compelled to share how the other day, when looking down from our kitchen window, Terezia and I saw an inebriated woman taking a dump on the common patio area right behind our building. Have I mentioned that we're looking forward to moving?

Grandma's communist pad: We were shown this apartment by a friend of a friend of a friend. He knew we wouldn't be interested in it, but we thought we'd check it out anyhow, because looking at apartments is kind of fun. This guy's mother had lived in this apartment for a while until she passed away a few years ago, but his brother doesn't want to sell it, so they are trying to rent it out instead.

I didn't have my camera with me, but I will do my darnedest to paint as vivid a picture of this place as I possibly can.

Let's start with the kitchen. Every inch of counter and cupboard surface was coated in a fake, worn grey marble-patterned formica, while the cupboard doors and even the drawers all had strips of gold tinted aluminum border inlays for added flair. Directly over the sink, however, was one cabinet door inset with glass, and in the center it had a clock set into it with the numbers glued directly onto the glass in a circle around the hands. The faucet had two enormous round meters affixed to the hot and cold water levers. The space between the top of the cabinets and the ceiling was lined with half empty bottles of various types of hard liquor.

Most of the doors in the apartment had been removed and replaced with those sliding grey vinyl accordion style doors that move back and forth along a track in the ceiling.

In the living room, a dining area was separated from the area with the couch and TV by a massive, floor-to-ceiling glass partition, framed by panels of wood that were painted a shiny black. The wall behind the dining table was lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with old books. The 40 year old TV sat in a large, 80s-era entertainment center/book shelf that was similarly crammed with old books, as well as piles of old blank cassettes. The massive sofa was a very 1970s beige intercut with horizontal strips of dark brown pleather. A random assortment of paintings covered much of the available wall space, some of which were apparently done by a family member, and appeared to depict abstract raccoon faces done in vibrant air-brushed pastels.

The apartment had a balcony, which looked down onto a sort of brutalist "garden", which was mainly sad bits of plants engulfed by big, grey, blocky concrete planters.

Despite the obvious, um... let's say eccentricities, the place actually felt quite warm and cozy. Clearly not something we would want to live in, but the kind of place you could imagine your grandmother living in in 1980s communist Czechoslovakia. I know a few people who would probably consider living here voluntarily just on the abundant kitsch factor.

The tree house: This place was on Lazaretska and had great views overlooking the picturesque, tree-filled Jakubovo square. The building was somewhat old, and the apartment was nestled high in the fourth floor attic space.

While the views from some of the windows were quite nice, the severely angled a-frame ceilings - as a result of it being in the attic space - posed a bit of a problem. Since Terezia and I are both around 6' tall, we'd run the risk of hitting our heads on the sloping, 45 degree angle ceiling. The worst instance of this was in the bedroom, where whoever gets the left side of the bed would have to duck down really low when getting up so as to avoid bashing his or her head into the ceiling. I think we both envisioned a heated game of rock-scissors-paper to decide who'd get that side of the bed. I've already killed enough brain cells with all the homemade gut rot I've had to endure in this country, so I don't want to make matters worse. I suppose I could wear a bicycle helmet to bed so that I don't have to worry about slamming my head into the ceiling when waking up at 3 in the morning to pee, but... no.

Apart from that, however, the apartment was actually quite nice. It had modern and tasteful furniture, a fully equipped kitchen, nice hardwood floors, and dark wood support beams in every room that really lent the place a rustic feel, not unlike being high up in a tree fort. However, there was a bit of miscommunication with the price of the rent. The owner actually wanted 50 more than what was advertised, which also happened to be 50 more than what we're willing to pay. The apartment was also kind of getting a wee bit further out from the center than we'd like, and the bus route to Terezia's work would be a little more complicated. So, while we did pass on it, it was definitely one of the nicer apartments we've seen.

Another unaffordable dream apartment: We've seen a few other apartments as well, but none of them are worth mentioning except for another dream apartment that our friend Katka managed to show us. This was located in the same beautiful historical building as the bookstore - Kníhkupectvo u Bandihoshe runs with her husband, right on the corner of Medena and Kupelna. The place was lovely, with the requisite museum style parquet hardwood floors; large, spacious rooms with high ceilings and big windows; gorgeous exterior details like a lovely entryway and stairwell; and to top it all off, it was on the fourth floor. Sadly, like the last dream apartment we saw through Katka, on Heydukova, this was yet another case of the utilities pushing the monthly total anywhere from 100-200 out of our range. Katka is so incredibly sweet, but damn, I wish she'd stop doing this to us! Maybe next year.

I should also mention that this dream apartment was the 5th place we've seen that had been previously inhabited by Greek university students. I would've thought that was a strange coincidence had I not edited this little piece for the Spectator a while back.

At any rate, we've narrowed our search down to a couple of pretty cool apartments, both of which we think we'd be happy in, so stay tuned to find out which one we end up choosing and why!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Broken buildings: more lunatic rantings about Bratislava's urban fabric

One of the things I noticed soon after moving to Bratislava was that the larger area of the Stare Mesto (that more or less encircles the pedestrianized historical center), which is a mishmash of architectural eras and styles from medieval to Habsburg to communist to contemporary, has a number of historical buildings that are in serious states of disrepair. These buildings are not merely dilapidated - they're literally falling apart, with boarded up windows, gutted interiors, large cracks and chunks of missing plaster, etc. They are probably condemned and uninhabitable to anyone but the bravest of squatters.

Don't get me wrong, I like a little dilapidation. There's something romantic about when these old buildings actually show some signs of their age. That's what makes streets like Kapitulska or Konventna so appealing and actually kind of preferable to much of the pedestrianized center which, if anything, is a bit too whitewashed. But I'm aware that at some point those cracks and holes need to be filled, and those facades need to be painted so as to prevent these buildings from disintegrating beyond the point of repair.

You might remember my post about Kapitulska, a beautiful street in the historical center with several very old buildings that are on the verge of collapse, for which very little is being done beyond minimal bandaid repairs. But with Kapitulska, we know why these buildings are in the state they're in: the catholic church owned many of them, but they were seized by the state during communism and basically neglected for 40 years. When the church got them back, it lacked the money and/or the incentive to restore the buildings, yet it has been reluctant to sell them to developers. So they're just sitting there deteriorating.

As for the buildings just outside the pedestrianized historical area, there are probably a variety of reasons as to why they are being neglected, although in the end I'm sure it all comes down to money (or lack thereof). Below are several such buildings that have caught my attention.

This sad building on Namestie 1 maja is now an entrance to a parking lot that's in back of it. 

If you look closely, you'll notice the facade has been covered in chicken wire netting to prevent falling chunks of plaster from hitting passersby. This is not an uncommon site in Bratislava. 

What strikes me as odd about these buildings is that one would think that, given their relative scarcity and unique beauty, they would be highly valued and that developers would be falling over themselves for the chance to restore and renovate them into stylish residential flats or office spaces. This has happened with many of Bratislava's historical buildings to varying degrees, but I worry that these particular buildings might be too far gone to bring back to life; the repair work they need may be so severe as to render them unprofitable. Restoring historical buildings is enormously costly, and some of these buildings could conceivably turn into a financial black hole.

This building and the one in the photo below sit next to each other on Panenska, a cool historical street that sits a couple of blocks outside the pedestrianized historical center. 
This building's not totally boarded up yet, but it could soon wind up that way, just like its next-door neighbor, above.
Panenska building detail.  

I'd love to know who owns these buildings. Were they returned to their rightful owners after communism ended? If so, are the owners just sitting on them, waiting for the market to pick up, or do they want to restore them, and simply lack the funds? Or, were the owners or their descendants nowhere to be found, leaving these buildings under state control? If it's the latter, that could explain a lot. Still, it seems wrong to me to just let these buildings languish. I wonder if there is some state or EU aid that can be tapped for restoring historical buildings.

This sign is telling people to watch out for falling chunks of plaster. If you look carefully you can see signs like this affixed to some of the older buildings around town. 

If you look close you'll see that this highly visible structure on the busy corner of Stefanikova and Palisady is actually two buildings that are attached. The one on the right is not only boarded up, but adding insult to injury, it's being used as a colossal billboard, which is wrong on so many levels, and a prime example of Bratislava being literally swallowed up by hideous billboard advertising

This building is actually right in the heart of the pedestrianized historical center, a short block away from Hlavne namestie, the main square. This is the only building in the historical center that I can think of outside of Kapitulska that is uninhabitable. Sad!

What's odd about this is that in other historical European cities, like Florence, Siena, Prague, or Vienna, you really don't see buildings like these that are on the verge of collapse. They've all been restored or well maintained, and one gets the impression that there's just no way anyone would have allowed that to happen in those cities. But in Bratislava, it seems that a lack of money, and perhaps even a lack of motivation or interest, is a major obstacle.

Not sure what's going on with this building on Jozefska. Someone clearly started adding another level, but this gutted building has been sitting like this for a while. I've strolled by several times and have not seen anyone working on it, but who knows. Some projects move at a snail's pace. Also, who knows if the upper level, if completed, will cohere to the historical style of the first two levels; historical buildings with jarringly incongruous modern add-ons are not uncommon sights in this town. 

This palatial house, located on the corner of Sulekova and Zrinskeho, a block up from Palisady by the cemetery, is pretty amazing, yet sadly neglected. There doesn't appear to be anyone living in it, and even the gates in the front are padlocked. 

A close-up of the building above. Looking pretty rough. 

Part of why I care about this issue so much is not just because I really dig historical architecture, but that Bratislava already lost enough of its history during communism and even in the post-communist era. Communist panelaks and glass and steel shopping centers and office buildings have been encroaching on the historical center for decades. As a result, Bratislava's historical center is woefully small when compared to other cities (which in my opinion is a major reason why it doesn't attract as many tourists), so you'd think it'd be really important to preserve what's left.

See the building on the left? It's gone. Totally demolished. Now, even though it was not as attractive or unique as the building with the crumbling neoclassical facade next to it, it was still a nice building, and the fact that it's gone is basically my worst fear realized. The building next to it is in pretty rough shape, but at the time of writing, people are living in it, despite the fact that a wooden cover had to be put up over the sidewalk to prevent chunks of plaster from falling off and hitting passersby. 

However, I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. This attractive, and until recently crumbly, building behind the US Embassy is currently getting a thorough restoration. Check out these before and after shots.

This is how it looked last January. 
The new addition on top is questionable, at least as far as historical authenticity, but it could be worse. 
Detail of the front door. 

(Click here to see more of my photos!)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nifty Bratislava fog

I really dig the fog we've been getting here recently. 

Here is a photo of Hotel Kyjev taken from our kitchen window with Tuesday evening's fog, and below it, the same shot the next morning without the fog. Neat!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 2

Our epic apartment hunting saga continues...

What's the point?: This place was damn near perfect. A beautiful, tastefully furnished apartment in a sweet historical building on Laurinska, which is a picturesque, pedestrianized street right smack in the middle of the historical center. The only real flaw was that the kitchen sink was kind of small, making it  potentially difficult to wash large pots or baking dishes. But we could've lived with that. Besides, it had a dishwasher. Everything else about this apartment was perfect. Big beautiful windows, hardwood floors, a stylish looking kitchen with groovy red tiles, and super nice furniture, all for the same rent that we currently pay, including all utilities and even internet/cable. Wow!

So, when we told the realtor we'd take it, he revealed that someone else had already agreed to rent it, but hadn't signed the lease yet, but that in all likelihood it was a done deal. So, um, what in the hell were we doing there, then? Well, you never know, he said. Sigh... Seriously, only an imbecile would back out of renting a place like this.

Claustrophobic: Located in an old, medieval-era building on the corner of Laurinska and Ursulinska, across the street and a few doors down from the apartment mentioned above, and in the same building as the Oxford Bookshop, this apartment actually had a lot going for it. Nice and tasteful furniture, reasonably spacious, great hardwood floors, etc... This place had been previously used for short-term holiday rentals, but the owner wanted to switch to a long-term rental situation. But the deal-breaker? All of the windows of the 2nd floor flat looked out into the building's interior courtyard, which was really more of a glorified air shaft or light well, as it was far too small to really be considered a courtyard. That means when you looked out the window, all you could see was the wall across the way - which was at max 10 feet away - and right into someone else's apartment. Bummer.

The corner of Laurinska and Ursulinska. 
An aerial view of the building on Laurinska, where you can see the tiny "courtyard"/air shaft that I've circled in red. 

Beds and hair everywhere: This next apartment was in the same building, owned by the same person, and had also been used as a rental for short-term stays. But it was much larger than the first - palatial, actually, and with rent to match, of course. But we thought we'd check it out anyway, since we were there. The windows actually had street views onto Ursulinska. But what made this apartment worth mentioning was a matted wad of long hair stuck to the bathroom counter and dirty q-tips on the floor. I mean, come on, would it really have put them out to tidy up the place and make it look more presentable?

Also off-putting was the fact that the apartment had beds everywhere. There were 2 or 3 single person beds stuck in every available corner of the living room, while the bedroom also had an extra bed along the far wall. Here's an idea: how about ditching all the crappy extra beds! Because I guarantee you, unless you're specifically trying to rent your flat to a large group of students, you're not going to attract any potential tenants with the vacation rental look.

Myopic landlord: We liked this place. It was located in one of our very favorite neighborhoods, near where Stefanikova and Palisady intersect, where there are several blocks lined with beautifully ornate 19th century facades. This apartment had a lot of nice, old-timey details (like intricate woodwork on the door jambs, massive beautiful solid wood doors), very high ceilings, and was fairly spacious, with a nice big kitchen and an airy living room. Although it was at quasi-ground level, the windows were probably about 7 feet off the ground, so it's not like people walking by could peak into the place. (Besides which, it was a pretty mellow street). And speaking of the windows, they were huge, old, and beautiful - and let in lots of natural light. Terezia had some reservations about the ground floor, but despite that, we decided we'd take it.

So, what went wrong this time? We actually saw this place back in October, and when we said that we couldn't take it until December 1 because of our current lease, the owner decided that was too long to wait, and opted to gamble on someone else being both interested and able to move in sooner. Of course, at the time of writing nearly a month later, this apartment is still available, and they've even decreased the rent by 50 euros. So stupid - had they agreed to let us take it in October, they could've locked us in at a higher rent. But now that the rent has gone down and Dec 1 is fast approaching, maybe we'll get in touch again.

Stay tuned for part 3 of Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™ - Part 1

So, our lease is up at the end of November, and we decided that we want to find a better apartment. The place we're in now has never been ideal, but we chose it out of desperation because we really needed to get the hell out of Terezia's brother's house in Bernolakovo as quickly as possible.

Our apartment does have its advantages: it's centrally located and close to lots of shops and key tram/bus stops; it's spacious and happens to be situated in a solid, well-constructed late-1940s building; it's got a really nice kitchen; and the owner, who lives next door, is quite friendly.

But, it's also got a lot of negatives. First and foremost, the furniture is unrelentingly hideous. When my friend Jason and his brother Dan came to visit in May, they both laughed out loud for an awkwardly long period of time when they walked into the living room. The blue/green carpets are clean, but also threadbare and cringe-inducingly ugly. The bed, the apartment's pièce de résistance, is an uncomfortable and hysterical 1970s artifact, covered in white vinyl, complete with a crazy headboard that resembles the back seat of a 1970s pimp's Cadillac, with a mirror on top.

Other issues include these old, loud, quasi-homeless alcoholic guys who camp right outside the building on a patio in the rear and leave piles of garbage behind, which the building's maintenance person/janitor clearly couldn't be bothered to pick up. The loud din between 4:30 and 7:00 in the morning from Tesco's delivery trucks is another serious issue (I have to sleep with earplugs), as is the daily sound of men urinating on the wall at the base of the building. It's a distinct sound that cannot be mistaken for a garden hose, and we can hear it very clearly from up on the third floor!

So, we're looking for an apartment with nicer furniture (most apartments in this town seem to come furnished) so that we can feel more comfortable and more at home in the place, but also a place in an older and nicer building on a quieter street. But of course we still want to be centrally located in the Stare Mesto.

But, much like what we experienced this time last year when we looked at about 14 or so apartments in the Stare Mesto, each place seems to have at least one glaring, deal-breaking flaw. Here are some of our Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!experiences so far. 

Bedroom is a closet: The first place we looked at was in an older building on Banskobystricka, and had a lovely, spacious, reconstructed kitchen with big windows that let in lots of light. From there you entered the living room, which had nice hardwood floors and more big, old fashioned windows that let in lots of light, with nice views over the large park across the street behind the presidential palace. But as soon as we walked into the bedroom, our hearts sank. The bedroom was so narrow that one side of the queen sized bed had to be pushed up against the wall, while there was scarcely about 2 feet of space between the wall and the other side of the bed. Making matters worse, you had to squeeze through this narrow path in order to reach the bathroom at the other end of the room. It really felt more like a glorified hallway.

Apparently, this apartment is having trouble renting (it's been online for a couple of months), and we suspect the crappy bedroom might have something to do with it. The realtor actually called us a week after we saw it to ask if we would reconsider (which has never happened to us before). When we told him why the bedroom wouldn't work for us, he actually said that we could move the bed so that the headboard was against the wall, which is hilarious because if you did that, you would have to literally climb over the bed to get to the other side of it (and to the bathroom!).

Here's the floor plan of the bedroom. That' s the doorway at the lower left side, the bed in the middle, the window and heater beneath it along the bottom, a large armoire at the upper right hand corner, and the door into the bathroom along the upper left. Just all around terrible feng shui! 

50 Shades of Grey: This next place, in a large, attractive complex of old buildings between Tobrucka and Vajanskeho Nabrezie, had potential. It was on the fourth floor of an older, pre-WWII building and the owner had recently renovated the entire apartment. It was nice, but we weren't in love with it. One of the main issues was the owner apparently has a deep obsession with the color grey. The kitchen was kind of a grey monochrome, but the bathroom was tiled from floor to ceiling with every shade of grey in the spectrum. The tiles were completely random - there was no pattern or anything, like a jumbled up greyscale - which had kind of a nauseating effect.

What was funny about this place though was that at one point, when Terezia and I were taking a second look at the kitchen, the owner pulled the realtor into the other room and scolded him, saying, "You're doing a shitty job selling this apartment. I can tell they are not 100% sold on this place, and you need to go in there and convince them." I mean, what did he take us for, a couple of undiscerning, feeble-minded knuckleheads who can just be manipulated into signing a lease for any old place?

Bait and switch: The next apartment was located very close to 50 Shades above, but looked out over Medena. The photos were sweet - the place just oozed the kind of old architectural detail that we go totally gaga over, but was recently renovated with new hardwood floors and amenities. But when we met the realtor out front, he ushered us into an apartment that was not the one pictured or described on the website. It had identical furniture and appliances (all very tasteful and modern), but while the one on the website was a proper 65-square-meter one-bedroom flat with large widows overlooking the street, this was much smaller and felt more like a glorified studio apartment, with the kitchen and living room crammed into the same small space, a narrow, partial wall that barely separated the bedroom, and windows overlooking only the building's interior courtyard.

He then took us into the apartment next door, which was virtually identical, and still definitely not the one we saw in the ad online. At this point, I said to the realtor, "This feels very deceptive. Why aren't you showing us the apartment that was pictured in the ad on the website? If we had known you were going to show us these, we wouldn't have bothered responding." The realtor seemed totally shocked that I would say this, and he explained that they have seven units available in the building and that they use the photos of one of the nicer apartments to represent all of them, because they all have the same furniture, appliances, hardwood floors, etc. When we asked if the one on the website was available, he said it was, but the catch was that it was actually going for 1,000 per month (which was well out of our budget), despite the fact that it was advertised on the website for a good deal less, including all utilities.

But we checked it out anyway, and while it was definitely a nice place, the whole exchange left a bad taste in our mouths. The guy kept saying, "See, same furniture! Same appliances! Same bathroom!" as if to reassure me that there was nothing deceptive going on. Never mind that this flat was quite a bit bigger and nicer than the others. When we told the guy that we definitely couldn't afford it, he asked us our price limit, and when we told him, he said that he was pretty certain that the owner would come down to our range, but that we would have to take the apartment right then and there. "Can you take the place right now?" he asked. Well, no. You see, we're bound until the end of the month to this thing called a lease...

Dream apartment: Next we saw a place that we were told about by a friend of Terezia's named Katka. Katka and her husband run a bookstore in the center of town on Medena, and they seem to know everyone in Bratislava. A retired friend of hers looks after a few apartments, and one located on Heydukova recently became available. The rent Katka mentioned was right at the upper limit of our range, but she didn't know whether it also included utilities (it's common for apartments here to either include utilities in the rental price or list a set monthly fee for utilities that you pay the owner with the rent). The second we sit foot in this place, I knew immediately that the rent wasn't going to cover utilities.

Firstly, the building itself was quite old, with a beautifully ornate 19th-century facade. The apartment was massive - 100 square meters - and it had beautiful hardwood floors, high vaulted ceilings, and stylish modern furniture. We were in love. The apartment actually had two bedrooms and a super nice, modern kitchen. Katka's friend who showed us the place was this really nice older fellow who gave off a bohemian vibe (as in the lifestyle, not the Czech region) and had a good sense of humor. But I felt sad and defeated as we walked through the place because it was clear that the utilities would push the rent well out of our reach. What a tease!

Since most people's eyes will probably glaze over before they even finish the first paragraph of this post, I'll leave the next round of apartment rental fun for Part 2 of Bratislava Apartment Hunt 2012!™.