Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Updates to Jeff's Tour of Communist Bratislava

This is just an update to let people know that I've added three sites to my "Jeff's tour of communist Bratislava" page: a very cool apartment building on Medená ulica, the Vinohrady train station, and the Bratislava Airport "Government" Lounge (Vládny salónik). I've also got an update on the current status of the beloved Československá Automobilová Doprava sign, since the bus station is being rebuilt from the ground up. Check it out here!

Vinohrady train station (photo by James Thomson)

I realize I'm a moron for not including these sites when I first wrote this particular blog page, but better late than never. Also, at the time of writing, you won't be able to see/visit the Airport "Government" Lounge, unfortunately, but it's such a unique and striking design that I still wanted to bring attention to it. 

And if anyone knows of any must-see 20th-century/modern communist-era buildings or sites that I haven't mentioned in my self-guided tour, please let me know about them. If a site is accessible by public transit, not too far on the outskirts of Bratislava, can be seen without you getting chased off by angry security guards, and meets my own possibly idiosyncratic standards of what makes a cool structure, I'll consider adding it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 3

At the time of writing this, we've actually been back in the States for about two weeks. I apologize profusely for being so wildly late with this third and final post, but we were coping with a nine-month old who wasn't coping so well with the jet lag, which meant for the first week after our return, we were getting about four hours of very interrupted sleep per night. The stepfather of a close friend of mine told me before Simon was born that humans are designed to endure the sleep deprivation that comes with raising babies, but I'm starting to seriously question that.

Compared to previous trips, this one was much more low key and uneventful - sometimes frustratingly so. And that's why I feel like I don't have a lot to say in this third and final blog post. As I mentioned in the last post, part of that had to do with how traveling with a very active and curious nine-month-old baby can be quite challenging. Simon actually does pretty well in most circumstances, but like all babies, he does have his limits.

Also, crappy, rainy weather on several days conspired to keep us homebound, as well as some issues with Terezia's dad's car - a small, aging Skoda hatchback with an engine that sounds like a gas-powered lawn mower, which is in dire need of a tune up and oil change, among other things (like new windshield wipers). And in some ways, this trip felt even less like a vacation since Terezia's parents' home is not baby proof, so when Simon was roaming free throughout the house, someone had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he wasn't getting into lower cupboards, smashing his fingers when opening and closing drawers, pulling down table cloths, or climbing dressers or TVs that could topple onto him. (We also had to keep him away from Terezia's parents' chihuahua, Ricky, because when they were first introduced, Simon playfully grabbed Ricky's ears and yanked them - something that Ricky really wasn't into.)

There were a few occasions when the height of our day was literally just going for a 30-40 minute walk around the village, or going into Lučenec to run some errands.

After one such trip to Lučenec, Simon fell asleep and was in dire need of a decent nap, so we just kept driving, ending up on a scenic loop that went through Tuhár, Divín, and Ružiná. I cycled this loop twice two years previously with Tony, Jano, and Christoph, but as Terezia and I were driving it, we saw that lengthy stretches of the roads were covered in loose gravel (put there because of the snow from earlier in December), which would have made it totally dangerous and basically unridable for a road bike.

Tuhár is really nothing more than a small, remote, backwater village, located a bit far off the beaten path, that has nothing of interest to anyone who doesn't live there. However, there is something about it's setting in a picturesque canyon, and its rows of old ramshackle houses, that makes it visually appealing.

Tuhár, photo taken in 2015

According to Terezia's mom, Tuhár is known for suffering water shortages. Even though a creek runs through the village (and when we drove through, there was still several inches of thick snow on the ground, whereas the snow had pretty much all melted back in Podrečany and Lučenec), Tuhár apparently goes through periods when it just runs out of water. A lot of people in the smaller villages in this region have wells and septic tanks, and many streets are not hooked up to any sort of water grid, so I suppose Tuhár's water problem shouldn't be too surprising. Still, Slovakia gets lots of rain (and snow) throughout the year, and from what I've been told, droughts are typically not a problem for most areas. It's super weird and unfortunate that the state is not able to help improve the infrastructure in some way.

On our last trip in 2015-2016, Terezia's cousin Jano said Tuhár has some kind of folk festival around New Year's that locals go to, but he added Christoph (who is German) and I shouldn't go because we'd probably get beat up by the locals simply for being foreigners. So, yeah, Tuhár: reportedly lacking in water and an open mind?

Date Night (sort of)

New Year's was pretty low key for us, but the night before New Year's Eve, we finally got Terezia's mom to agree to watch Simon for a couple of hours so we could go out for a date night. That day, Tony and his wife Silvia drove out to Podrečany, and we went out to a newish restaurant in Lučenec called Tančiareň a pivovar.

Tančiareň is trying really hard to stand apart from the typical greasy Slovak grub holes that are common in towns like Lučenec. It's a gastropub where they make their own beer and prepare things like upscale-ish hamburgers with fries served in metal cones. The place is spacious with tall, exposed-brick walls and steel beams, a couple of big beer vats by the front windows, and young waitstaff. The owners have clearly gone to great lengths to create a vibe and menu that cater to "hip" 20 or 30 somethings who are slightly more aware of the world outside the village.

While Terezia, Silvia, and Tony all focused on the trendier hamburger options, I stubbornly went in a more Slovak direction with the confit duck leg with red cabbage and loksa. Huge mistake: the duck leg was dried out and bland, while the portion of soupy red cabbage was so disproportionately massive that you could have doled all of it out over the denne menu plate of every patron during a lunchtime rush. The beer was quite good though, particularly an "American-style brown ale" that was like a darker amber ale.

So, I'd probably return for a beer, but maybe not the food.

Fortunately, for the New Year's Eve dinner, Terezia made us a roasted duck dinner, and obviously her tender, juicy, intensely flavorful duck blew away the desiccated, leathery travesty at Tančiareň.

Back to Bratislava

Tony was fighting a nasty cold/flu, so he and Silvia went right back home the very same day they drove out. Unfortunately, that left us having to find some way to get back to Bratislava a few days later, where we'd be spending the last few days of our trip. We didn't want to take the train, as that involves a four-hour ride that might have tested Simon's patience, especially since these days the drive is only about 2.5 hours.

Fortunately, Terezia's aunt hooked us up with a local cab driver she knew through someone, who offered to take us back for around 100 euros. Unfortunately, even though we were assured he'd show up in a "combi" (in English this word describes a kind of van, but in Slovak it's basically a station wagon), the driver arrived in a car that was really more of a glorified hatchback. We were barely able to cram everything, including Simon in his car seat, into the car. I was wedged in the backseat between the door and a large suitcase that was jammed between Simon and myself. 

But the driver was quite friendly, and he and Terezia chatted all the way back to Tony's house. During communism, the driver had a job that had something to do with the roads, and when we drove through his native Trnava region, he was full of amusing bits of info on the local roads. 

For example, running alongside highway 62 between Sládkovičovo and Senec is an old, narrow, rough-looking road that the locals apparently refer to (still) as "Hitler's road" because it was built by the Nazis during WWII. This road was apparently the first paved road through this particular stretch. The communists eventually built their own road, part of which runs alongside it, made out of concrete slabs (as opposed to asphalt), but it apparently aged quickly and badly next to Hitler's road from all the pointless military parades that they used it for. When it came time to replace the communist-era road, it was in hideous shape. The driver said that because the road was made out of these thick, heavy-duty concrete slabs, it was too much work to remove it, so they opted to make a new road directly on top of it instead. But because it was so torn up, pitted, and bumpy, they had to pour more than a foot's worth of asphalt over it to make it smooth and even.

This stretch of highway 62 also has what were jokingly referred to as "kissing zones," which look like dual roadside pullouts facing each other on opposite sides of the road. Despite their name, kissing zones were not lovers' lane type hangouts where teenagers would park their cars and get to third base behind fogged-up windows. When the Soviets would send political delegations into Czechoslovakia, these kissing zones were where the Czechoslovak officials would first greet the Russian delegates and do the rounds of traditional cheek kissing common among central and eastern Europeans. Why they would first meet at the side of the road outside of town is beyond me, but that's what these shoulder turnouts were for, and not for turning into if you had car trouble or wanted to let someone pass you.

The driver said that when they'd get word that a Soviet delegation was coming through, they had to make the road and the surroundings look immaculate, doing everything short of painting the grass green to make it spic and span. It didn't matter if a nearby village's roads were a complete mess - all that mattered was that things looked shiny and new wherever the Soviet delegations traveled.

Twenty-Five Years of Independence

During our trip, Slovakia was celebrating its 25th anniversary since the "Velvet Divorce," when Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully (albeit not democratically) went their separate ways. It's quite amazing to consider how far Slovakia has come since its days in the 1990s as "the black hole of Europe" under Vladimír Mečiar, who most people agree as having had a super corrupt, autocratic, media-muzzling, economy-tanking, Russian-style form of governing. And it's especially impressive how, of the four Visegrad countries (the others being Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), Slovakia is, at the time of writing, the sanest and most politically stable.

Hungary, under Viktor Orban, has become a far-right, nationalist, autocratic, illiberal democracy, and Poland over the past few years has been quickly following in Hungary's footsteps with an uber-right-wing government that's working feverishly to erode democratic institutions and norms. The Czech Republic's president of the last four years, Miloš Zeman, is a populist, nationalist, pro-Putin, euroskeptic, Islamaphobic blowhard who won with wide rural support (and is up for re-election this month), and the country's new prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is a populist billionaire oligarch with alleged ties to the communist-era secret police whose business interests are seen as a massive conflict of interest.

Of course, as a friend of mine noted, Slovakia's relative political stability/sanity could all come crashing down in a single national election that goes the wrong way. But the fact that just last year in 2017, voters in the Banska Bystrica region ousted their scary, neo-Nazi, anti-EU incumbent governor, Marian Kotleba, is quite promising.

Slovakia still has plenty of problems: its current prime minister, Robert Fico, has been making hostile, toxic comments about the media and immigrants years before Trump. But for the past four years, Slovakia's president, Andrej Kiska, has been the only voice of sanity and reason among the top elected officials of the Visegrad Four, and he's had the effect of helping Slovakia to be seen in a more positive light. I've heard that Kiska doesn't want to run for re-election, but I hope he changes his mind. Slovakia (and central Europe) needs more adults in the room like him.

One Last, Brief Excursion in Bratislava's Old Town

On our last full day in Slovakia, we took a little trip back into Bratislava. Naturally, the weather that day was crap, alternating between rain and snow throughout the afternoon (though it was quite nice the day before and the day after, of course). As soon as Silvia dropped us off near Eurovea, the rain turned into big globs of wet snow, and as it was about lunchtime, we ducked into Kolkovna, a decent restaurant at the west end of Eurovea.

I ordered their plate of goose leg with red cabbage and potato dumplings, which was profoundly superior to the dried-out leather shoe I'd had at Tančiareň in Lučenec. This goose was so awesomely tender, juicy, and flavorful that it was almost as good as Terezia's duck! I didn't remember being this impressed with Kolkovna in the past, so I wonder if they have someone new working in the kitchen. Terezia got the fried cheese, a Slovak and Czech staple that she likes to indulge in at least once when she's there, while Simon made a mess with a bread roll and some puree.

One of my goals for this trip was to find some Slovak children's books for Simon. We plan to raise Simon bilingual, with Terezia speaking to him in Slovak and me in English. But while we'd been given a slew of English books, we had none in Slovak, and I knew we'd be able to remedy that at one of Bratislava's decent bookstores. At Gorilla, a cozy bookstore/cafe near SNP square, we spent nearly 40 euros on kid's books. I was excited to find a Slovak translation of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Even though Simon's too young to understand these books, he really seems to gravitate towards bold colors and playful illustrations, and he always tries to grab at the animals in Carle's books.

We did manage to piddle around the Stare Mesto a bit, but the rain really made it less than fun. On the way back toward Eurovea, as we were walking through our old neighborhood, we stopped by the building where a friend and former co-worker of Terezia, named Katka, lives and paid her a totally impromptu visit. She was happy to see us and, like a typical hospitable Slovak, she insisted we come in for coffee and cake.

Back to the Airport

On our last day, we took a cab to Vienna's Schwechat airport where we were staying on our final night at the adjacent NH hotel. This place is super convenient when you have to fly out from Vienna in the morning, since you literally just exit the hotel and make a short walk across a parking lot.

That evening, I finally got the chance to meet up with one of my friends, James, whom I worked with at the Slovak Spectator when living in Bratislava. He has since relocated to Vienna to work as an editor for a cool website, called Eurozine, which publishes political articles and essays. He kindly offered to trek out to the hotel, where we met up in the bar and discussed politics and our sometimes irrational longing for Slovakia and its myriad idiosyncrasies over a few rounds of beer.

Fun anecdote: when asking the bartender if the Budweiser listed on the menu was the original Czech beer or the fake, super bland/weak American one, the bartender gave a look of mild disdain and replied: "We don't import American water."

When I came back up the room, where Terezia and Simon were asleep, I was slightly dismayed to find that, for some reason, Simon refused to sleep in the Pack-n-Play style crib provided by the hotel and would only sleep on the bed, sideways and in between us, of course, pushing Terezia and I out to the edges. Maybe suddenly having too sleep in a new, strange place was a bit much and he wanted to be closer to us.

Final Thoughts

At any rate, that's it! I feel kind of bad that this trip was so uneventful that I really didn't have much to write about. Honestly, it probably did not justify three blog posts, and I felt I had to really dig to find anything worth writing about. And I apologize for this last post being so insanely late, but it was really a struggle to get anything coherent out what with the whole taking care of a nine-month old thing and not getting any sleep.

But the next time we go back to Slovakia, we'll be doing things a little differently. We'll definitely rent our own car, for starters. Not having to rely on family for transportation is crucial to being able to do at least some of what we'd like to do. Simon will be older, and we will feel less guilty about leaving him for a few evenings (or, gasp - even an entire day!) with his grandparents. We'll probably also go at a different time of year - maybe Spring or Fall, when the weather might be a bit more cooperative (although in Slovakia, as in much of Europe, it rains any time of year, so you could potentially get caught in a downpour no matter when you travel). And hopefully we'll have the whole traveling with a small kid thing down a bit better. It's doable, as the many families with small kids that you see at all the big international airports would probably attest, but it definitely takes practice.

This blog will return to its state of quasi-hibernation, but stay tuned: I do have a few ideas for future blog posts burbling around in my soupy, sleep-deprived brain.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 2 - Lučenec, Halič, and More

I suppose it goes without saying that traveling with a baby can be rough. Simon has had us on a  bizarre and exhausting sleep schedule whereby he wakes up around 4:30 am and, if we're lucky, he goes back to sleep around 5:30, and, if we're even luckier, we get to sleep a little more too. But this has meant that by 7:00 in the evening, when Simon normally goes to bed, we're completely wiped out and we end up involuntarily crashing around then too. Pathetic, I know.

For this reason, we've been taking it relatively easy on this trip and we're being far less ambitious with our plans and our time. Suffice it to say, we're not going to be taking any long train rides to Prague on this trip, and we'll likely be staying closer to home.

A Riveting Morning in Lučenec

On the Wednesday after Christmas day, we went into nearby Lučenec and piddled around. I've mentioned Lučenec before as being the closest town of any significance to Terezia's parents' village. It has a population of roughly 30,000, and for years its unemployment level has hovered around 14 percent. For most tourists there's really nothing to do or see in Lučenec. It's kind of a sad, grey, run-down town with lots of little casinos, commie-era bleakness, and lots of guys, both young and old, with bad haircuts and cheap track suits smoking and milling about like they've got nowhere to be, and women with unnaturally colored hair.

But when you walk through the very center of town, you can spot pockets of attractive, ornate, and colorful art nouveau facades and some old, appealingly crumbly buildings that hint at a time when the town held more importance and even exuded a bit of class. Lučenec was the capital of the historical Novohrad (New Castle) region when it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and remains the region's main town and economic center. Though governed by Hungarians for much of its history, it was conquered by the Hussites in the mid 1400s, and Ottomans took control of it for almost half of the 1500s and then again for nearly all of the 1600s.

Lučenec was decimated in the mid 1800s during an anti-Habsburg revolt, but its inhabitants managed to rebuild it in 10 years. The town also became a thriving industrial spot around that time with brickworks and tanneries, but that dwindled in the 20th century along with the town's importance, and it never really managed to recover. In the early 2000s, a proposed silicate mining project looked like it might turn Lučenec's fortunes around, but for whatever reason, it never got off the ground.

It's abundantly clear that the communists really did a number on Lučenec. Most notably, they razed a considerable portion of the downtown area to make room for a public square (Námestie Republiky) so sprawling and massive that it looks as if it were intended for military parades or showing off fleets of Soviet tanks (my friend James had a similar impression). But in 2015, a tacky, multi-level indoor shopping mall with an exterior that looks like it's encrusted in cheap hard candy, called Galéria, was built on the square. And yet, the square is so damn big that the mall only took up less than half of it. What remains of Námestie Republiky is still vast.

You can see here the vastness of the town's communist-era square, Námestie Republiky, even with the tacky shopping mall in the background.

Terezia has a connection to Lučenec. She went to a business academy there for secondary school, where students studied business management and administrative stuff. For a while, she lived at her grandparents' house in the nearby village Tomášovce (just to the northwest), and she would take the train into Lučenec each morning and walk across the downtown to school.

These days Lučenec is the town where people in surrounding villages like Podrečany go to shop at big grocery or department stores, and take care of various things like renewing your driver's license or going to the bank. Importantly, Lučenec has an awesome butcher shop that sells some of our very favorite Slovak sausages. Lučenec is also home to Záhradná, a reportedly Croat-run ice cream shop that makes the best ice cream I've found so far in all of Slovakia.

We strolled through Galéria, ambled around the old town, and then drove past the old business academy. To cap off our excursion, we stopped by the beautiful old synagogue, which recently underwent a massive restoration. Before World War II, Lučenec had a large Jewish population, and this grand synagogue, with capacity of 11,000, is just about all that remains of their history there. Like nearly all synagogues in Slovakia, this one was abandoned and neglected for decades after WWII, as the majority of Jews from Slovakia who survived the Holocaust did not return and fled for good (many had their homes/property taken, and they weren't going to get it back, so they had nothing to return to). Lučenec's synagogue was apparently used by the state to store artificial fertilizer for many years during communism, but from the 1980s onward it just sat there fenced in, boarded up, and strewn with weeds and vermin.

Lučenec's synagogue before restoration (in 2012)
And after restoration

For years most towns didn't know what to do with their abandoned synagogues and weren't able to fork over the huge sums of money needed to restore them. But in the last decade or so, some towns finally managed to find uses for their synagogues, typically with help from EU grants for the badly needed restoration, and turned them into art galleries, theaters, cultural centers, or places people can rent for weddings or other functions. Lučenec finally got around to restoring its synagogue several years ago, with help from a €2.3-million EU grant, and now the project is complete and the building has been turned into a multi-use cultural center.

Built in the mid 1920s, the synagogue was designed by Hungarian architect Lipot Barnhaum, who was well known at the time for his designs of another 20 or so synagogues all around Hungary. The synagogue was closed when we swung by, so we only saw the exterior. It's a gorgeous building, though, so I'm really glad that they didn't bulldoze it or let it fall completely apart.

Not far from the synagogue are a couple of narrow streets with older looking houses. I'm told that this is where the town's Jewish residents lived. When they were rounded up and sent away to concentration camps during WWII, locals looted the homes and gradually commandeered the property.

The outer ring of Lučenec is pretty much all communist-era paneláks, and there are an awful lot of them. When driving through that part of town, it's easy to see why people here drink so much.

Halič Castle

Halič is a charmingly ramshackle village just to the northwest of Lučenec that boasts an attractive, striking castle. A major and ambitious decade-long restoration project for the castle was finally completed in 2016, and it's now a five-star hotel with a cafe, restaurant, and spa. Terezia and I took her mom and Simon up to the castle later that day to have coffee and cake in the cafe and to check the place out.

You can see the Halič castle sitting majestically on its hilltop from miles around in all directions, and I've always admired it from the various roads below. Its Renaissance-Baroque style and six ornate dome-capped towers really make it stand out. Halič is also notable for the fact that it's one of the few castles in the region that wasn't obliterated by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Hussites, etc., and is not lying in ruin today. (It actually was destroyed in some mid-18th-century conflict, but quickly rebuilt in its more Baroque style and made to look more palace-like.) I'd always wanted to see it up close, but during its restoration it was totally fenced off, and if you approached the padlocked chainlink gate near the bottom of the hill, vicious German shepherds would come charging down the driveway on the other side of the fence and bark angrily.

The first written mention of the castle was in 1386, though the village of Halič supposedly dates back to the 12th century, and it's possible a castle in a different form existed at that time too. Interestingly, the castle managed to remain under the ownership of one family, the noble Hungarian Forgáchs, from 1554 to 1948, which is unusual for a region where castles seemed to constantly change hands.

[I'm just guessing here, but I wonder if the Forgáchs lost the castle, and were expelled from what was by that point Czechoslovakia, because of the post-WWII Beneš decrees, since they were Hungarian. The controversial Beneš decrees expelled millions of ethnic German and Hungarian inhabitants from Czechoslovakia in the years immediately following WWII, many of whom had roots in the area going back generations, and often no roots in modern-day Germany or Hungary where they were forced to flee to. Read more about the tragic and devastating mess that resulted from the Beneš decrees here.]

At any rate, during communism, the state used the castle as a mental hospital from the early 1950s until the 80s, which adds a potentially disturbing layer to its history, as I can only imagine how people with severe mental illness were treated by the communist state. According to the hotel's website, the building underwent considerable reconstruction in the 1950s to convert it to a psych ward, all of which had to be undone for its recent restoration. From the early 90s onward, the castle was abandoned by the state and left to deteriorate at the hands of vandals and mother nature.

Today when you approach the castle, it's immediately clear a lot of money was pumped into its restoration. Honestly, it's a little bit posh and glitzy in a Habsburg/Hofburg Palace kind of way for my tastes, but even so, it's incredibly nice (and almost weirdly decadent) for an area known more for high unemployment and relative poverty. The castle would probably seem more at home in Vienna or Bratislava, but at the same time, the surrounding village below and the panoramic views of the surrounding rural scenery are quite picturesque, so visually, at least, it's a fitting location for a hotel of this ilk. If it brings more money and jobs to the area, and maybe a few more tourists, all the better for it.

As for the restoration, a massive modern glass dome has been installed over the castle's big central courtyard, which has been turned into a spacious cafe. The hotel has a reportedly good (and sort of pricey) restaurant in a separate (and very Baroque) room off to the right. The upper floors house the hotel's rooms, and I believe the spa is down below (in the former dungeon, perhaps?).

It was kind of fun to sit there and take in all the detail and the vastness of the space while sipping drinks and keeping Simon occupied. Simon was being very chatty and charmingly oblivious to how his babbling was reverberating throughout the echoey space. There were a few other babies there, so no one seemed to mind. The cafe's coffee wasn't the most amazing in the world, but their hot chocolate was tasty and rich. I just don't like being served coffee by people in bowties and black vests, though the service was much friendlier than normal for Slovakia, and it felt more laid back than the posh appearance of the place would suggest.

The castle appears to be doing okay so far, and the cafe was reasonably full when we were there, but I do have to wonder just whom this hotel is catering to. I think it's way too far off the beaten path for most American/Rick Steves-reading tourists, not to mention most British or western European travelers, most of whom seldom venture beyond Bratislava. I doubt there's enough business-related activity in the region to lure anyone on out-of-town business trips either. I suspect its clientele consists mostly of well-off Slovaks and Hungarians, maybe Russians too, and possibly some Czechs. Spa culture is huge among Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, and other central and eastern Europeans, and the facility's spa probably plays a big part in luring clientele. The castle also has banquet rooms that can be rented for weddings and other functions, so that's surely another source of revenue. Either way, I'm glad that centuries-old buildings like this are being preserved, but I hope it can stay in business.

For such a swanky hotel, their cheaper double rooms are fairly reasonable, starting at around €140 per night, which actually includes time in the spa. For all but the most well-off Slovaks that's a pretty outrageous price, but by broader European standards it's not bad for a special splurge-y hotel stay.

In fact, the next time Terezia and I are staying in Podrečany, we definitely want to book at least one night there and leave Simon with her parents for some much-needed alone time. It wasn't going to happen on this trip because Simon is still a bit of a handful - even though we could desperately use a night off! - but Terezia warned her mom that on our next visit they'll definitely get to have Simon for at least a night.

If you're interested, check out the history section of the hotel's website for more information, as well as some old pre-communist photos of the castle.

Dull Vígľaš Castle, Detva, and an Unfortunately Named Cafe

The following day it was raining, with the sky an oppressively dreary grey, and we went to visit a childhood friend of Terezia's who currently lives in the town of Detva, and who recently had a baby daughter who is just a few months older than Simon. We had some time to kill before meeting her, so we drove a little ways up the highway northwest, past Detva, to have lunch at some newish restaurant by the village of Vígľaš and to check out the newly restored Vígľaš castle.

Near the bottom of the hill at Vígľaš, we couldn't help but notice the perplexingly named Brexit Cafe. I'd love to know what the hell the owners were thinking. Are they enthusiastic far-right Euroskeptics? Were they hoping to corner the market on rightwing nationalist Brit tourists? Or were they just trying to come up with something topical and catchy? Why name your cafe after something that's so polarizing and controversial (and, in my humble opinion, such a colossal and profoundly idiotic mistake)? At any rate, this was so surreal that we had to stop and take a photo.

What the hell? The perplexingly named Brexit Cafe in Vígľaš

I don't have as much to say about Vígľaš castle, in part because we didn't spend much time there. Like Halič, Vígľaš was recently reconstructed/restored and converted into a snazzy hotel/spa/restaurant, but unlike Halič, its looks don't make quite as much of an impression. Also, Vígľaš was in a significantly more ruinous state before its reconstruction than Halič (its roof was gone and the interior was gutted and completely overgrown with trees and foliage) and probably required a lot more work.

I always used to admire the castle from below on the train to Podrečany when it would pass around the base of the hill, and from the car when driving by on the highway. However, the reconstruction job seems to have made the whole thing look a little boring and less evocative.

Here's Vígľaš castle in a photo I took when passing it on the highway, back in February 2012, with the reconstruction well underway.

The fact that the exterior walls were coated in drab, boring grey/beige plaster really doesn't help, which is made all the more noticeable by a few rectangular patches on the facade that expose the cool, rustic stonework beneath it. The castle would've looked much cooler - not to mention more medieval and castle-like - if they'd left all the stonework exposed. Notice in the first picture of the castle up above, from 2012, that with the exception of that crenelated tower on the right, most of the stonework was still exposed, and it looked more striking. (It's not the most amazing castle, architecturally, to begin with, though.)

Notice the patch of exposed stonework on the wall here. This castle would've looked way more interesting if they'd left the entire exterior that way.

Like most castles in the region, Vígľaš was owned by a cast of Hungarian noblemen, and for a time in the 1300s, it was connected through one resident to The Hungarian Brotherhood-Knights of St. George. The castle went through the usual round of renovations and extensions over the centuries, but managed to survive relatively intact until WWII, during which it was severely damaged.

Vígľaš has two courtyards, and this is the outer one where you first enter the complex.

We didn't go inside, but the interior looks nice in photos.

Detva, where Terezia's friend lives, is actually where Terezia was born (there was no maternity hospital in Terezia's nearby hometown, Hriňová; Detva is a noticeably bigger town than Hriňová). Detva is known around the country for proudly carrying on Slovakia's folk traditions, including folk music and dance, and the detailed and colorful kroj patterns on the traditional peasant garb. The town hosts a big folklore festival every year in the summer. When you enter Detva from the highway, it's all blocky, grey, dreary commie-era paneláks, leaving you to wonder how on earth this town became the steward of the country's folk heritage. But if you keep driving deeper into it, you see streets lined with unusually well-preserved traditional, long, narrow-fronted rural houses which people appear to be living in. Unfortunately, it was raining too hard to get any decent photos.

Click here to see more photos!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 1

We're back in Slovakia for the holidays, so I thought this would be a good excuse to dust off the cobwebs of this long-neglected blog and write an update. An awful lot has happened since my last blog post from way back in early 2016. Most notably, Terezia and I managed to successfully reproduce, and we've got a son, Simon, who is nine months old at the time of writing this. Terezia and Simon left for Slovakia a couple weeks before I was able to get away, and I left on the 19th and made the exhausting trans-Atlantic trip solo. Terezia's brother Tony kindly picked me up from the airport in Vienna that evening and drove me back to his and his wife's house in Bernolákovo, where Terezia and a sleeping Simon were awaiting me.

I was worried that Simon might forget who I was after being apart for a couple of weeks, since babies aren't known to make longterm memories. But when he woke up super early in the morning to find me in the bed, he gave me this massive smile and proceeded to crawl all over my head.

We spent the first full day at Tony's house being about as active as sloths. We took a stroll around his neighborhood, which is the new part of Bernolákovo, which continues to spread like a deadly virus in one of those bad Hollywood flicks about a deadly virus. But there's been one positive development from this: there is now a Billa (a big grocery store chain in Europe) a mere block and a half away - i.e., walking distance - from Tony and Silvia's place. In a previous post, I bitched and moaned about how nothing is walking distance from Tony's, and how it's very difficult to do anything in Bernolákovo without a car or a bike, and it can feel a bit isolated. This Billa was long overdue.

Bratislava's Old Town and Xmas Market

The next day, we took a trip to Bratislava's old town for the Xmas market. This was Simon's first excursion into the Stare Mesto, and it felt really cool to be pushing Simon in his stroller down those picturesque, cobblestoned streets that Terezia and I walked millions of times when we lived here.

We still maintain that between Prague and Vienna, Bratislava's Xmas market in the main square is the best. First of all, it's just the right size: big enough to feel eventful, but still comparatively small enough to feel kind of cozy and intimate; and just crowded enough to feel festive, but generally not mobbed, crazy, and impersonal like the markets in Prague and Vienna. And the food, generally, is a bit better too. We had some great spicy Slovak sausage, a sandwich with grilled pork and carmelized onions, and, of course, there was no way in hell I was leaving without getting a trdelník (discussed in this post, down the page), one of my favorite Slovak sweets. Simon loved the trdelník - a man after my own heart.

We also tried the scalding hot wine served in flimsy plastic cups. The first cup we shared was so watered down that we dumped it and got one from another stand made from black currants, which was much better.

Parents of infants often say that when you have a baby, "You've got to keep doing the things you like to do," but honestly, with a baby it's really not as easy as that sounds. You can certainly attempt to do the things you like to do, but those things are usually going to be condensed and/or compromised (sometimes significantly) - and you've always got to be super flexible and ready to change plans on a dime if your baby has had enough and decides to start being a poobutt. That said, Simon did great on our little excursion through the old town - he was quiet, content, and interested in his surroundings and all the people. But the couple of hours we spent there were enough for him. As we were leaving, he was starting to get a bit antsy and whiny, and probably wanted out of his stroller.

But it was so nice to walk through our old haunts, even if just for a couple of hours. We strolled past our old apartment building, reminisced about our old neighborhood, and looked longingly around at Bratislava's old town. I know we've often seemed ambivalent about Bratislava in some of the blog posts, but there are things we genuinely love and miss about the place.

After the old town, we went to Eurovea, one of Bratislava's dozens of glitzy, modern shopping malls (which is located along the Danube just outside the pedestrianized historical center), to meet Tony and Silvia, who were doing some last-minute Xmas shopping there. We took Simon to the restrooms to change his diaper, and Eurovea has a completely separate gender-neutral room for parents to take babies into for changing. This sleek, spotless, modern, well-lit room had a huge changing table, as well as two small leather couches and a microwave tucked away in an alcove where people can feed their babies in privacy. It also had a private toilet stall and sinks that are low to the ground for little kids to wash their hands. I've never seen anything quite like this in the US.

Off to the Sticks for Xmas with the Parents

Later that afternoon, Tony drove us to Terezia's parents' place in Podrečany, which, as some readers may recall, lies deep in the heart of central Slovakia. I actually kind of missed this particular winding 2.5-hour drive, which looked dark and foreboding as the sun was setting, with gloomy patches of fog rising from the frozen fields and forested hills. We were super elated to see that there was still several inches snow covering the ground in Podrečany and the surrounding area. It had snowed quite a bit before I got there, and the weather stayed cold enough for the snow to stick around for several days, making things feel nice and Xmas-y. Being from the Bay Area, where the climate is mild and seasonal change is barely perceptible, I love experiencing a real winter with snow on the ground and below-freezing temperatures.

Terezia's parents' backyard at sunrise

I always love going to Podrečany. As I've mentioned in the past, I'd probably want to blow my brains out if I were forced to live there permanently, but it's great to visit for shorter periods of time and bask in the slow pace of life in a quiet village that feels tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

We got up super early the next morning to take a drive into Lučenec, the nearest town of any consequence (about a 10-minute drive away), to do some last-minute grocery shopping at Tesco for the holiday. Tesco is a giant British multinational grocery chain that's as big, bright, and impersonal as any in the US, but we always dug their bakery with its variety of surprisingly fresh, tasty Slovak bread rolls, and importantly, pagáče (a flaky bread roll, a bit croissant like in texture, with pork cracklings woven throughout the dough), which, when fresh and hot, are an amazing thing to snack on. While in the bakery section, we bumped into a childhood friend of Terezia's who works there, and they chatted for a bit and took turns cooing at Simon.

Driving back from Tesco

After we got back, while Simon took a morning nap, I went on my favorite walk around the village with my iPod listening to Tinderbox by Siouxsie and the Banshees - the perfect soundtrack to the gorgeous snowy scenery and freezing winter air.

Later that afternoon, Terezia and I did a similar walk with Simon in the stroller. You have to be careful on the main road that snakes through the village as there's no sidewalk and some drivers barrel through that strip like they've just pulled off a bank heist. But there's generally very little car traffic here, so you're not likely to encounter more than a few kamikaze drivers at any given time, if any.

We'd have liked to stop by the Old Pub for a beer, but again, shattering the myth that some parents perpetuate about "doing what you want to do with your baby," we obviously weren't going to take Simon into that dingy, dark, smoke-filled dive and try to keep him entertained while quickly downing our pints and avoiding eye contact with the old, toothless drunkards perched about the place. (If it were Summer, though, we could have sat out on the pub's shaded front patio with Simon.)

I was sad to see that a substantial portion of the roof of Podrečany's oldest building has collapsed. This house was originally the hunting lodge of a top general in Francis Rákóczi's army (Rákóczi was a Hungarian nobleman who led an uprising against the Habsburgs in the early 1700s), and no one seems particularly concerned about its ruinous state. I'm sure no one has the money to repair the thing. The people who own it live elsewhere in the village, and they apparently just use the surrounding yard to grow potatoes, and they're just letting the building slowly fall apart. Still, I love the dilapidated, tumbledown look of so many of Slovakia's rural villages.


I wrote in detail about Slovak Christmas traditions in this post. As mentioned before, Christmas Eve is the real holiday for Slovaks - the day on which they have the big family feast and exchange gifts. Christmas day is for lounging around, eating leftovers, and nursing hangovers.

The last time we were in Podrečany for Xmas, two years ago, I went on a lovely and scenic bike ride with Tony, Christoph, and Jano through the surrounding country, but because of the snow, that wasn't in the cards this Xmas eve. And even though the snow was melting, the roads were still a total mess with gravel and patches of ice, which is obviously not conducive to a fun cycling experience.

Christoph and Ludka had an adorable baby girl, Sasha, who was born not long after Simon. Christoph and I walked Simon and Sasha around the village and did some catching up. We were told that it's a bit unusual in Podrečany to see two men pushing strollers together around the village, but we are more than happy to shatter any prescribed gender roles.

For the Xmas meal, we had the usual traditional Slovak fare, starting off with the requisite pieces of fruit and oblatky with honey and garlic, before moving on to the yummy pea soup with little potato dumplings, pork schnitzel and fried fish with potato salad, and a dizzying array of delicious homemade cookies. Simon had a sampling of everything and he liked all of it.

Speaking of Simon and food, one thing we've noticed here in Slovakia is that seemingly all of the baby-specific food products - like those pre-made purees that come in tubes, and the various teething crackers that dissolve quickly - all come with added sugar. In the US, however, it's easy to find these things without sugar, which is better for the baby's teeth, obviously. So, we've been mostly feeding Simon regular food: bread rolls, bananas, oatmeal, pieces of apple, and bits of whatever we happen to be eating. I brought along some non-sugar teething crackers that he liked to snack on back at home.

Terezia says that when she was a baby, it was common for mothers to dip pacifiers in honey to help quiet or soothe them. Some moms apparently even lined the lips of their babies with powdered sugar. No wonder you see so much tragic, gruesome, medieval dental hygiene in this country! And today we know you're not supposed to give honey to infants until they're a year old, because honey can very occasionally contain a kind of bacteria that can cause botulism.

Hriňová and Ružiná

The day after Christmas, Terezia, Simon, and I drove to Hriňová, the town where Terezia grew up, to visit Terezia's childhood friend, Martina, who was in town for the holiday. The streets and sidewalks in Hriňová were all covered in thick sheets of slippery ice, so we didn't get a chance to walk around much, but we drove around the town as Terezia pointed out things from her youth, like the panelák she grew up in, her elementary school, the public swimming pool turned garbage dump, some places where a few of her friends grew up, etc.

The panelák Terezia grew up in
Terezia's elementary school

When we left Terezia's friend's place, the local church service seemed to be getting out, and we saw some Kubo in the center of town taking a morning beer break at the Bufet Centrum. I explained the utterly bizarre tradition of Kubo in this post, but to sum them up, Kubo are roving gangs of generally teenaged boys in smaller, more rural towns and villages, who, at Christmas, dress up in bizarre costumes and try to cajole local townsfolk into going to the Christmas mass, but their outing usually devolves into drunkenly beating people up, harassing women, and shouting at people to let them into their homes and give them more booze. Terezia immediately locked all the car doors because she said Kubo are known for sometimes trying to stop cars in the road and banging on the windows.

I know it's a crappy, blurry photo taken from a moving car, but the person in the weird, puffy outfit sitting with his back to us is someone in a Kubo costume.

Hriňová is tucked away in a valley between forested hills below the Poľana mountains, and sits about five miles or so north of the highway between Zvolen and Lučenec. Prior to communism, Hriňová was just a small, remote rural village, but in the 1960s, the communist government built a big factory there and turned it into somewhat of a booming town. They offered free housing in then-new paneláks to attract skilled workers and families from out of town. Terezia's dad worked at this sprawling factory, where they manufactured transmissions for Soviet tanks. After communism, the factory switched to making train parts. Terezia's mom worked in Hriňová as an elementary school teacher.

For Terezia it was kind of a trip to take Simon to her home town since she has so many memories from growing up there.

After we left Hriňová, we took a detour on the way back home around Lake Ružiná, a big reservoir that was an extremely popular summer resort during communism for swimming, lounging on the beach, and camping. There used to be numerous restaurants, cafes/snack bars, discotheques, as well as fields for camping, and I'm told that in the summer this place was absolutely buzzing. But since the end of communism, the buildings and infrastructure have all fallen into disrepair, and everything looks faded, worn down, and dingy. Now the nicer shores of the lake are lined with cabins owned by well-heeled Slovaks for weekends and summer get-aways.

Lake Ružiná in better weather with the Divín castle ruin in the background (photo taken around Xmas 2015)

Ružiná is still a popular swimming hole, though, and we even went swimming there one summer day back when we were living in Slovakia, though we honestly found it to be a little on the grimy side. In fact, I remember how shortly after we swam there, the lake was closed to swimming for several weeks because of something mildly toxic found in the water. Indeed, way back in 2010, we went there one winter afternoon just to piddle around, and the reservoir was completely frozen over, and you could see a few car batteries, old boots, and tires sticking through the surface of the ice.

An eerie, foggy, iced-over Ružiná back in December 2010

The Divín castle ruin, which you can see from Ružiná, and which sits atop a hill in the village of Divín, is one of numerous castle ruins scattered all over Slovakia. Divín castle was built in the thirteenth century, and was captured by the Ottomans in 1575, who occupied it until 1593. A knight named Imrich Balassa inhabited it for a time in the 1600s, and he was reportedly known to be a thief who would periodically sack the nearby towns and everybody hated him - a real stand-up guy, apparently. The castle was conquered and destroyed by Habsburg Imperial troops in the late 1600s and has been in ruins ever since.

Divín castle ruin on the hill lording it over the village of the same name

Stay tuned for more on our trip to Slovakia!

Click to see more photos of the trip so far.