Sunday, December 27, 2015

Trip to Slovakia for the holidays: Part 1

Since we actually spent the last two Christmases in California with my family, we felt it was time to go back to Slovakia for the holidays and spend a couple of weeks with Terezia's family.

At the time of writing, it's been a little over a year since we left Slovakia. A year may not be long enough to truly miss a place, since being here now, it kind of feels as if we never left! But it has nevertheless been nice to revisit this country that we called home for over three years.

We flew into Vienna late Saturday evening, spent Sunday recovering from the long trans-Atlantic flight and piddling around Terezia's brother Tony's house in Bernolákovo (a suburb outside Bratislava that's spreading like measles in an anti-vaxxer community), then got up early Monday morning to drive into Bratislava with Tony on his way to work. This particular weekday morning commute is normally backed up like a Power Bar in a colon, but with this being the week of Christmas, traffic was unusually light.

Annoyingly, we wound up wasting over an hour in our Slovak bank that morning trying to sort out some debit card related issues. Terezia had forgotten her PIN, and for some reason, rather than simply let her create a new one then and there, the bank apparently had to send her a brand new card, which wouldn't arrive until after Xmas. I, on the other hand, remembered my PIN, but my debit card expired a few months ago and I never received a replacement. Words can't begin to describe how much fun this was.

With that agonizing chore out of the way, Terezia and I took a stroll through Bratislava's small but always beautiful old town and checked out the Xmas market in the main square, where we imbibed scalding hot wine served in flimsy, carcinogen-leaching plastic cups, and took in the aroma of sizzling pork and duck products emanating from the grills in the stalls.

Locals all seem to love the Christmas market, which lasts through most of December up until around the 23rd. Most of the time, locals seem to steer clear of Bratislava's old town like a leperitic, mung-haired, panhandling homeless guy, but December is one of the few times of the year everyone flocks to the old town in droves for the Xmas market, and the mood is typically pretty festive.

I didn't partake in any of the greasy hunks of meat served on floppy plates, as I had plans to meet up with my friend and former Slovak Spectator colleague James for lunch at Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar, an old lunch break haunt from the Spectator days. We got to catch up over some sauerkraut and sausage soup and fried fish fillets - the cheap-o lunch special that day. Being expats, James and I often shared similar observations about some of the more comically bizarre and perplexing aspects of Slovak culture, and we both seem to have a perverse fascination with some of the country's more remote middle-of-nowhere towns and villages.

Monday night we took Tony and Silvia out to Liviano, our favorite restaurant in Bratislava, located in the extremely communist Technopol building, deep in the bowels of Petržalka. Readers may recall that's where Terezia and I would go for special occasions, since the place ain't cheap and the food there has pretty much always been excellent. Tony and Silvia had never been there before, but they dug it. Tony ordered the braised veal cheeks and remarked that he'd never had meat so tender, juicy, and flavorful. I feasted on a truffle ravioli dish - they always seem to have what turns out to be a stunning wild mushroom pasta on the menu, and this one certainly didn't disappoint.

Technopol building in the fog.

Day trip to Vienna

The sky had been a drab, dingy washrag grey since our arrival, but with the lazy sun starting to poke through Tuesday morning, it turned out to be the perfect time for a day trip to Vienna.

Part of our reason for venturing to Vienna (and you may recall we liked going there for Saturday day trips when we lived in Bratislava for a taste of some real city cosmopolitan buzz) was to have lunch at our favorite Thai place, the amazing Sri Thai Imbiss, which you can read about here. Sadly, even though the special holiday hours posted on her door clearly stated they'd be open for lunch that day from 12:00-3:00, the door was locked, the lights were off, and there was zero sign of life inside. We lingered for several minutes out front, hopeful but in vain, until it was clear that the Curry Nazi was pulling a no-show that afternoon. Major bummer, as she makes some of the most delicious and authentic Thai food either of us have ever feasted on. But what can you do? The Curry Nazi does as she pleases.

So, we headed over to Naschmarkt to our favorite falafel stand, then strolled up and down the length of the place to gawk at all the produce, meat, wonderfully stinky cheeses, and aromatic spices. Naschmarkt always reminded us a bit of certain farmer's markets back in the Bay Area in terms of the  sheer variety of produce you could find. If we wanted figs or medjool dates, we had to go to Naschmarkt, because you could never really find that stuff in Slovakia.

We hit up our favorite sites in the old town around St. Stephen's cathedral and wandered aimlessly through the less crowded streets, and ventured out to a couple of record stores in the Neubau area. This was a short trip, but totally worth it, because who knows when the hell we'll get to see Vienna again?

See all the Vienna day trip photos here.

Christmas in the sticks

That evening we made the 2.5 hour drive east with Tony and his wife Silvia to Podrečany, the village in the middle of nowhere Slovakia where Terezia and Tony's parents live.

Readers may recall that Slovaks actually celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve (see my post on Slovakia's Xmas traditions here). That's when they have the big meal and exchange gifts and all that. (On Christmas day people just sit around nursing hangovers by drinking more (sigh...) and eating leftovers.)

As I detailed in my Xmas post, the Christmas meal in Slovakia adheres fairly strictly to age old rituals, and every step, every part of the meal, has symbolic meaning steeped in catholic tradition, which is amusing to see when you're accustomed to the more anything goes customs in the US, which vary from family to family.

So, after enduring the Moby Dick length catholic prayer, we kicked off the Xmas feast in typical fashion with a round of shots. Terezia's dad then sliced up random pieces of fruit and passed them around, and we had the traditional oblatky with honey and garlic. After that, of course, came the pea soup, followed by the salmon and fried fish, and the obligatory heaps of potato salad, capped off with a platter of tasty cookies and cakes.

Xmas Eve bike ride in the countryside

Everyone here has been grumbling about how the weather has been very un-Christmas-like this season: zero snow (at lower elevations), not super cold (temps have remained above freezing), and much of the country seems to have been covered in an eerily dense blanket of fog ("hmla," in Slovak). But on Xmas Eve the lazy sun started breaking through the hmla, which brought a gorgeously hazy, wintery light to the rural landscape, so it was decided that this was the perfect time for a bike ride through the surrounding countryside.

Terezia's cousin Jano, her cousin Ludmila's boyfriend Chris, and Tony and I went on a super fun 18-mile bike ride through some nearby country roads. This was one of Jano's preferred cycling routes, and he led us through a series of rolling hills, dense forests, and tiny, ramshackle rural villages. We first made our way to the small, rough-hewn village of Tuhár, which is a little ways off the beaten path, tucked in a crevice between two hills.

After ascending the hill out of Tuhár, we made our way down a fun, gently curving descent into the picturesque village of Divín, which is home to the super cool Divín castle ruins and some wonderfully run down streets. From there we headed to Lake Ružiná, from which you get majestic views of the Divín castle ruins in the distance. After rounding the lake, which has a beach area complete with dilapidated facilities that was quite popular during communism, we headed back to Podrečany.

I could ride around this region every day. The scenery is lovely and I dig riding through the old, remote, worn down villages. The roads were - surprisingly - not as terrible as I expected, with the exception of a few stretches that were pitted and pockmarked enough to throw one's spine out of whack. But other seemingly random stretches were almost silky smooth from recent repaving. I got to ride my old Peugeot 10-speed, which I rode the crap out of when we were living in Bratislava, and which is in dire need of a tune-up, but it worked out okay for this ride. Overall, it was awesome to get out of the house and into the cool, fresh winter air and work the phlegm out of the lungs.

General rural Slovak weirdness

We saw a news story on TV at Tony's about how people in smaller towns and villages are burning plastic bottles (!) and old furniture that they've chopped with an axe in their wood stoves and fireplaces. Obviously, this is all kinds of horrible, but frankly it's not terribly surprising, especially when you're familiar with the mentality commonly encountered out in the country. Maybe this explains what happened to all the cool mid-century modern furniture that you never seem to see anywhere outside of museum exhibits?

Creepy Kubo

We took a drive with Tony up in the hills high above Hriňová, the town where Terezia and Tony grew up, in an attempt to get above the thick blanket of fog that had been submerging the valleys. Along the way, on a narrow road in the forest outside some remote village, we saw a gang of what's referred to as kubo. Kubo are part of this bizarre Slovak Christmas tradition in which young male hicks from the sticks dress up in creepy animal masks and/or tall, funny hats, and, wielding large sticks, they start the day going door to door singing Christmas carols in exchange for booze and food, but after a while, according to Terezia and Tony, they get so drunk that their outing usually devolves into harassing or beating up random people in the street.

From what I can gather, this tradition has something to do with the nativity. Usually a few guys in the group represent the shepherds, while another guy dresses up as an angel who, for some reason, carries around a small replica of a church (inside of which is apparently a miniature nativity scene), and a couple other guys don super creepy animal costumes. The furry animal character is supposedly the kubo, a sort of bear-like creature, but I can't figure out what he has to do with the nativity. He seems to be there merely to add a bit of comic relief or "fun" to the proceedings, and according to one source he would hassle local women for showing too much leg or stuff like that.

The roots of this tradition seem to have started innocently enough as a kind of reenactment of the nativity, wherein the youths would cajole locals into going to Christmas mass. But how it became an excuse to get shitfaced and terrorize the neighborhood is beyond me.

Terezia and Tony have scary childhood memories of kubo roaming the streets on Christmas in Hriňová. The kubo would stand outside the panelaks and shout menacingly up at the inhabitants to let them in the building. Terezia says that as children they always steered well clear of any roaming packs of kubo.

Terezia also explained that the kubo came from the rural areas on the edge of town, from homes where the same families had been living for generations, and never from the panelaks in the center of town. There was apparently a sizable cultural divide between the factory worker types in the town center and the peasant/farming families on the outskirts, and this kubo tradition was one way in which that distinction became glaringly apparent.

After a bit of Googling, I found that these customs seem to have originated as a way for rural youths to have fun on Christmas, since their families often had many children but no money to buy them Xmas gifts. They'd apparently spend all year rehearsing the carols and their "routine."

At any rate, the kubo gang we saw looked fairly young and harmless as we drove past them, but Tony nevertheless insisted on locking the car doors, and he noted that one of them was stubbing out his cigarette as if anticipating some sort of confrontation, so who knows?

Trip to Prague

Terezia and I desperately wanted to get a bit of "us" time on this trip, so we decided to take a little excursion up to Prague. When living in Bratislava, we'd go to Prague for extended weekend trips a few times a year, and it became kind of a special place for us. Despite the logistical headache of getting there from Podrečany, we were determined to make it happen. But I'll save the Prague trip for Part 2...

For now, I'll leave you with some random photos of Podrečany taken on or around Christmas day.

See the full set of Xmas in Podrečany photos here.

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