Sunday, March 24, 2013

Bratislava's Dobry trh

Four times a year downtown Bratislava hosts this event called Dobry trh (*see bottom for pronunciation), which means Good Market. It takes up much of the length of Panenska street, a slightly ramshackle but generally picturesque historical street about a block outside the pedestrianized center, and the event is absolutely mobbed. Vendors set up stalls selling artisanal food and wine, as well as etsy-esque arts-and-crafts stuff, random junk, used books, and a variety of other things. Some of the stalls were occupied by local shops who seemed to be selling excess or old stock cheaply, while other stalls appeared to be manned by individuals or very small "businesses" selling random ephemera.

What's interesting to me about Dobry trh is that all of these kind of semi-hip and culturally switched on looking people come out of the woodwork for this market. Where some of these people disappear to when the market is not happening, I've no idea, but it's the one event in Bratislava that feels a bit like, say, the Lakeshore farmer's market in Oakland, or the Center St. farmer's market in Berkeley. Although this isn't a famer's market, it attracts that kind of crowd, if you know what I mean. A colleague of mine joked that if you dropped a bomb on the Dobry trh, you'd wipe out a good portion of Bratislava's middle class.

The artisanal food stalls seem to be the most popular. Giraffe Bakery always has the longest line, with its tasty cupcakes, cheesecakes, and macaroons. The cupcake craze is still somewhat of a novelty in central Europe, since cupcakes are much more of an American thing, so people still get excited about them as they obviously haven't reached the point of over-saturation like they have in the States, where these days mentioning the word cupcake might elicit jaded eye-rolling. This woman's cupcakes are pretty good.

There was also a stall serving Mexican food, but we were mystified by the basket of sliced dark bread they had on their table. I think that some Slovaks have a hard time stepping out of their comfort zone when it comes to food.

A sushi place we've yet to try had a stall here, and there were also people selling artisanal cheese, wine, Slovak sausage, strudel, and other baked goods.

This woman was selling wine made from black currants.

I was hoping to see more in the way of old junk. There were a few stalls selling vintage fashion accessories like old glasses, and a guy selling ephemera like old postcards, but ultimately not much. One of the many things I miss here, which we have an abundance of in the US, are junk shops or flea markets where people sell interesting antique or vintage crap. Strangely, I never see these in Slovakia! For example, I'd love to be able to sift through some old communist paraphernalia, something that is oddly quite elusive in this country. People here seem to be so hyper-obsessed with having new things that it's rare to find shops or people who are into vintage stuff. It's like there's not much of a market for it here. I don't know if it's a matter of people trying to leave all memories of communism in the past, but all of the junk that was amassed during the 40-year regime had to have gone somewhere, right? Hopefully not in a landfill.

It's always nice to see people selling LPs, although this guy didn't really have much. 

This woman had a small assortment of vintage and vintage-y things. 

At any rate, it's nice to see Bratislavans actually get out of their flats for something other than the annual Christmas market in December. This town normally feels so dead on the weekends that stumbling upon this market was a pleasant surprise. It'd be nice if they held it more often, and it would also nice to see more types of ethnic cuisine represented. Bratislava really needs more of this kind of thing. 

*To pronounce trh, you can take the word "turd", nix the d, roll the r, and follow that with a soft, quick h sound, sort of like the sound you'd make when exhaling.

Friday, March 8, 2013

More Prague, please!

We were all set to go to Prague the previous weekend (Feb 23-24) to celebrate Terezia's birthday, but a day before the trip, Terezia slipped on a patch of ice while walking to the bus stop at night after work, and fell in such a way that left her legs knotted up like a pretzel and she injured her knee. It was not a spend all night in the emergency room kind of injury, but bad enough to make walking around a bit painful, and her knee was a little swollen and purplish. So, we canceled the trip because Terezia didn't want to spend the weekend cooped up in a hotel room while gazing sadly out the window at the city which her knee would prevent her from seeing.

But at (quite literally) the last minute, we decided to go the following weekend, and it worked out perfectly, as the weather was much nicer, and we got a sweet last minute deal on a great room at one of the b&b's that we usually stay in. Terezia hadn't been to Prague in nearly a year, and I hadn't been since going with my father back in July, so it was high time for another trip.

We both love Prague, and we will happily go there any chance we get. It's nice to get away to a city that's much larger and more visually stunning than Bratislava. The gorgeous architecture, whether gothic or 19th century historicist, never fails to amaze us. Prague also has more of what you could call a pulse. Of course, while in Prague you do have to dodge tourists (especially in summer), on weekends in Bratislava at this time of year, you're dodging tumbleweeds. Prague, by contrast, is still nice and bustling.

I never get sick of the place. We could walk around the city endlessly and not get bored. Plus, I love visiting Prague in the winter because there are fewer tourists, and you can actually walk across Charles Bridge in a straight line. Hotel rates go up considerably after March as well, when tourist season starts its 6-7 month high.

The beauty of a non-congested Charles Bridge during the off-season. 

We strolled through our favorite places, went to our favorite haunts - a walk up to the castle is obligatory - and ventured into some new (to us) areas. I've always wanted to go up to Letná Park, which is a hill overlooking the Vltava river just north of the old town, and which is home to a giant metronome. What's fascinating about this spot is that back in the late 1950s and early 60s, it was home to a colossal Stalin monument. Completed after Stalin died in 1955, it was torn down in 1962 after Khrushchev came to power and publicized Stalin's crimes, as part of the process known as de-Stalinization. Today it's simply a great place to take in more views of Prague's glorious, spire-studded skyline.

We also went to the Veletržní Palace for the first time, which houses the Prague National Gallery's modern art museum. The palace is actually a hulking, oppressively nondescript, functionalist glass and steel office-style building, so its name is a bit misleading. This world class museum is sprawling, so much so that we really just had to focus on the genres we were interested in and breeze through or skip entirely some of the other stuff, because you could easily spend an entire day in this place. The third and fourth floors are where most of the action is, with loads of great 20th and 19th century works. Lots of Czech cubists (a pretty robust cubist section overall) like Kubista, Filla, Čapek, etc., but also a pretty impressive Picasso room, and a nice Braque section, as well as some pleasant surprises like a vibrant Miro, a Van Gogh, and an interesting piece by Klimt. Lots of lesser known works by famous artists like Klee, Sisley, de Chirico, Matisse, and Monet as well, and some sculptures by Rodin. It's not quite the Pompidou, but it's definitely a worthwhile place.

Joan Miro painting in the Veletržní.
A Kubista piece in the Veletržní.
Inside part of the Veletržní - this place really is sprawling.  

I wasn't able to get any photos of the Picasso or Braque rooms, sadly, as a few of the security folks in characteristic ill-fitting grey suits were watching that area like a hawk, and there are "no camera" signs on each floor.

The Slav Epic, a cycle of 20 enormous paintings by Alfons Mucha, was seriously impressive. It's currently housed on the ground floor of the museum (after being moved, quite controversially, from the town where they had been on display for several decades), and the giant paintings are truly stunning. I've only really seen Mucha's more well known art nouveau pieces (we went to the Mucha museum on our first trip to Prague back in 2010), so it was interesting to see him branching out a bit with this cycle. The paintings all weave together the narrative of the Slavic people, covering important moments in their history, touching on different areas from the Czech Republic to Serbia to Bulgaria and Russia.

The light in these paintings reminded me of Maxfield Parrish - very soft, glowing, and atmospheric. The two were contemporaries, so I can't help but wonder if there was some kind of mutual influence. And I can't emphasize enough what an impact the sheer size of these pieces had when seen in person. It almost felt as if you were engulfed by them. Of course you have to know a bit about the history for these paintings to make sense, and thankfully they had a brochure in English that described each one.

Slavs in their Original Homeland
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia

The Oath of Omlandina under the Slavic Linden Tree

As for food, well, on the last couple visits we tried two Thai places, one of which was godawful, while the other was strictly mediocre. This time we stuck to Czech food, and U Parliamentu is still our favorite. With its cool ambience, nice big windows with views onto the historical street, its predominantly local clientele (all of whom smoke like chimneys - yes, the Czech Republic has yet to ban smoking in restaurants), and most importantly the food - which is pretty darn good - we always come back to this place. Their duck is a must-try.

We also managed to hit my favorite cafe, Kaaba, which is way off the tourist path in the Vinohrady area, on the hill a just few blocks behind the main train station. Good coffee with seriously cool kitschy vintage-modern decor. I wish there was something comparable in Bratislava.

I'd love to spend an entire week here, as we never have time to see everything we want to see, but at least we can still get away there for the weekend via a four-hour train ride, something we obviously couldn't have done from San Francisco.