Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Prague Blague: Days Three and Four

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen…” and so did Dottore Gianni! In fact he not only looked out, he stepped out and up, to Hradcany, the Prague Castle complex.

On Charles Bridge
heading to the castle
While I’m on it, who is St. Stephen? Well, apparently not only a saint and martyr, but the FIRST martyr, tried and stoned to death for preaching about Jesus only a year or so after the crucifixion. Several Catholic countries observe an actual holiday on 26 December in honor of this first martyr, including the Czech Republic. He is known as Istvan in this part of the world. If you remember back to my Budapest post, the beautiful St Stephen’s Basilica in that city (Szent Istvan Bazilika) is named after him. Knowing that a Bohemian duke named Wenceslas was out giving alms on a cold day in December, a day holy to him and those around him (except possibly for his assassins) because it honored the first Christian martyr puts the story and the hymn in context for me – whether it does so for you or not, sorry!

The road leading from Mala Strana
to the castle
Whew! I DO go on! So on the Feast of Stephen I ventured out and climbed to the castle via Mala Strana. If you start in Malastranske Namesti it’s a fairly steep but manageable climb along a street filled with cafes, restaurants and more than anything else, souvenir shops, so if you get tired there are plenty of places to get your breath back again. The day was not completely clear, but enough so that once in the area of the castle it was really quite lovely. I decided to go a bit farther on, as I’d not seen the Strahov Monastery, slightly higher on the hill than the castle. 
If you’re ever in Prague and at Hradcany already, there are two good reasons besides seeing the monastery to go. First, the views from a terrace at the rear of the monastery the views are even more breathtaking than those from the castle. 
The view from Strahov Monastery

Second (and more fun), the good monks of Strahov still brew their own beer, several variations in fact, and there’s a little café next to the monastery where I had a really good chicken noodle and vegetable soup (though not so fine and like my grandmother’s as I’d had in Bratislava) and a decent amount of the monks’ amber ale – delicious lunch!

Thus fortified I strolled easily back to the castle, passing Loreto on the way. My mother, sister and I had visited there those several years ago when we took our trip to Prague. I didn’t go in this time, but it’s famous for a copy of the house in Nazareth called the Santa Casa, where the annunciation took place. It’s referred to as Loreto because in the late thirteenth century a wealthy Italian family bought the house and had it brought back to their home town…Loreto. Even though the Prague Santa Casa is a mere replica, it seems the place has become a pilgrimage destination as well as a tourist attraction.
I then returned to Hradcany Square, passed the elegant Archbishop’s Palace and across from it the Schwarzenberg Palace, a great example of the decorative technique called sgraffito, 
The Archbishop's Palace, Hradcany Square

Schwarzenberg Palace
and finally went through the castle gates and into the courtyard where everyone who enters is overwhelmed by the St. Vitus Cathedral. The cathedral is overwhelming from much farther afield, in fact to my mind it is THE highlight of the view from Charles Bridge, for example, or any other place along the river where the complex is visible. Think about it for a moment. If you erased St. Vitus from the photos we all take of Hradcany, what would the view be? A group of buildings high above you, but none so distinctive, so dramatic as the cathedral, which is THE focal point. Agreed? Of course, I knew you would!
The entry ticket I bought was for the short visit, which included the Cathedral, the old palace, 
St Vitus Cathedral - flying buttresses!
St George Basilica
The Basilica of St George, the oldest church within the castle, founded in 920, rebuilt after a fire in 1142, and Zlata Uliska (Golden Lane) filled with tiny houses dating from the fifteenth century, one of which, number 22, Franz Kafka lived in for a time. I had been to all of these before, but I wanted to stroll through each again, as who knows when, or if, I’ll make it back to Prague?

Then I headed back down to Mala Strana, crossed the river one bridge north of Charles Bridge which leads directly to the Rudolfinum, an elegant neo-Renaissance structure in Stare Mesto. The Rudolfinum houses antiquities, art, and is home to concerts of classical music, as are so many public buildings in Prague. It had been a busy and relatively long day, so I headed back to Wenceslas Square, had some halusky at the Christmas Market there (potato gnocchi with bacon and cabbage – not as good as I’d hoped) then returned to the hotel where I ended up doing as I tend to do at the end of the day – dealing with photos and preparing blog posts.

My final day in Prague was a rather light one, comparatively, as I had beem active, maybe too much so, during the first three. 

After another good breakfast I headed to one of my favorite places in Prague, the Mucha Museum. Alfonse Mucha was a talented artist from Bohemia, who created a sensation in Paris when he deigned a poster for Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of her era. The style in which he designed it was unique, and was for a time known as the Mucha style, but later became known as Art Nouveau and grew into a popular form throughout Europe and beyond.. The museum is excellent, and at the end of your tour of it you can see a twenty-minute film on Mucha's life, very well done.

I left the happy but hungry, and found a small cafe in Stare Mesto where I had an inexpensive, delicious bowl of goulash soup, very different from that which I had had in Hungary. I then decided to walk north through the old town to Josefov, the Jewish quarter. 

Kafka Statue
In this part of town I came upon a unique statue of Kafka, which I'd not seen before, as well as the Spanish and Old/New Synagogues and the graveyard next to which souvenir stands sell among many other things, books and other gifts that have to do with the Golem of Prague -- legend has it that a rabbi created this colossus out of clay to defend the Jews of the city and to prevent pogroms. The Golem became more and more violent, in one version of the story it fell in love, and ultimately the Rabbi had to de-commission his creation -- but some say it is still in the attic of the Old/New Synagogue, waiting to be re-activated if need be!

For one of my final acts in Prague I fulfilled a promise to David Agranov, who had arranged for the great room I stayed in while there: to go to U Flecku, the famed pivnice and restaurant to have one of their home-made brews. 
U Flecku
I did, in fact I had two -- one for David, another for me. Another special Prague treat, upon entering your are seated at a long thin table packed with other tourists and regulars. A beer is brought to you on a platter with many others, a small sheet of paper is placed next to you on the table and a mark is made to signify what you owe. Glasses of the powerful Becherovka are also brought round, and of course you can order food if you like -- a warning: it's OK to smoke there and there was a lot of smoking foing on, which would probably ruin the experience for some, but it's quite the place, and their pivo is near perfect!

Then I staggered back to the hotel, made sure that the lovely and delightful young woman at reception ordered me a taxi to the airport for the next morning, and I also asked if she could print out my boarding pass, as I had been able to check in on line, but of course had no access to a printer. She jumped to the task and made my departure much easier. Then I headed out for a last meal, but I was so stuffed from Slavic food that, sacrilege of sacrileges, I ate Italian. A decent Margarita Pizza and a big salad, and a tad more red wine than I really needed.

Little more to say – I really enjoyed my trip, not just to Prague, but to Budapest and especially Bratislava. I learned a lot, I saw two great cities I’d never seen and re-visited one I love, at Christmas to boot, a decorative and celebratory time in any part of the world, but the Christmas markets and decorations these cities seemed to propel me into the holiday spirit. And maybe most importantly I was able to bid my own small adieu, with a votive candle, to a hero of mine, Vaclav Havel.
Another memorial to Havel, on Liliova Street
Next trip in just a few weeks, for my birthday – Bruges!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Prague Blague: Day 2

The second day I set out on another route, along the river to the National Theatre, then across to Mala Strana, the area below the castle on the same side of the river. 

The Narodni Divadlo, or National Theatre

This is equally as charming as Stare Mesto, and in some ways more so. When looking for late eighteenth century streets and buildings in which to shoot scenes for the film Amadeus, Milos Forman chose this section of Prague, not Vienna, where the action is set.
A small, curving street in Mala Strana
Wander even one street off the main tourist paths and you can see why, instantly. If a few cars could be moved out of the way, it would, and does for me, retain the feel of the era in which it was built. It’s also slightly less crowded with tourists, though the solo traveler will be trapped at times by competing tour groups, led by men and women, who seem to have been at the business a bit longer than they’d have liked, carrying umbrellas raised as a focal point for the herd following them. But if you’re clever and quick you can give them the slip and have full moments alone in a past created by your own imagination.
I’ll confess that when I have such moments much as I love them, I also imagine what Dottore Gianni would have been like in that era: a peasant, he’d not be leisurely strolling, oh no, but racng to get somewhere at the behest of a stern and unforgiving master, probably loaded down with goods or baggage. And as his eyes are in awful shape even in the twenty-first century and the best spectacles that money and health insurance can buy,  living back a few centuries he’d also be traveling nearly blind. IF he was lucky enough to be in a city at all! More likely plowing a field somewhere out in the country.

Building with lovely painting on Malastranske Namesti

But what of that? While not the wealthiest of tourists, I am much more able to enjoy myself than my unidentifiable peasant predecessors would ever have been. 

Na Kampe
And so I enjoyed my walk through Mala Strana, and the area in it slightly separated from land by a small channel in the river, known as Na Kampe. Here you can really feel the eighteenth century. I like best the small squares in the vicinity of and running under the Charles Bridge. You can grab a bite at a café, catch a boat along the river, or just have a good wander, as I did.

In fact I had such a good wander that I needed to hurry just a bit to get back to Stare Mesto in time to grab a bite to eat before the opera!

I had thought to get something at the Christmas Market, but it was so crowded that I didn’t want to fight the crowds. I’ve also learned in the past not to take the hustlers working in front of restaurants along Staromestke Namesti up on their offer for a good meal. They seat you in a friendly manner and immediately forget you, and when you wave for a menu ten minutes later they do their best to ignore you. So I marched away from the square and towards the theatre, and on the way found a more modest place that was pleasant if not perfect for a pre-theatre lunch.

I chose well in the restaurant, poorly in the lunch. I have been wanting to try the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of fish soup followed by carp and potato salad. But of course instead of eating it on Christmas Eve, a day of fast and 
abstinence in a Catholic country, I decided to have it on Christmas Day. And with two-thirds of it I was not disappointed. The fish soup was delicious, and a perfect way to warm up from two hours of trodding around in very cold and somewhat windy, wet weather. But the main course was more food than I’d bargained for and less tasty than I’d hoped. Carp, I had guessed when reading about it, might be an acquired taste. Let’s just say I did not acquire it on this occasion. I got through about half of it – dark and very “fishy” with bones throughout. A few bits were good, and I had few more than that. The potato salad was gigantic and while better than the carp only fairly good. Washing it all down with Staropramen helped immsensely however, and the dessert, Christmas Stollen, was the highlight of the meal.

The highlight of the meal - yum!
And then, at 1:45 pm I got up from my table and walked the two minutes to the Estates Theatre for the Christmas Day matinee of Don Giovanni, the great Mozart/da Ponte opera which premiered at this same theatre in 1787. This 
Boxes at the Estates Theater
was a treat! The production was interestingly if a bit oddly designed by the great Czech innovator, Josef Svoboda, so visually it was stunning. For the most part it was well-sung, though I must admit I wanted to shoot the shrieker who was singing the admittedly difficult role of Dona Anna. But the other singers were adequate at least, and Leporello and especially the title character were sung and performed very well indeed. But the star of this show was the Estates itself. I’m been to the Statni Opera here before, and to the National Theatre, but the Estates is simply exquisite, when the foghorn pretending to be Dona Anna (don’t worry, she’s not following this blog – at least I hope not!) was ploughing roughly through beautiful music I simply looked up or around. 

In the Estates, particularly when listening to Mozart, it is very simple indeed to imagine oneself present back in the eighteenth century, as little has been changed, though much restored. And of course while electric light works wonders on stage, in an auditorium such as this one it is somewhat garish – one can’t have everything, however, and what I was given was more than enough!

The ceiling of the Estates
The company managed to churn through this opera in exactly three hours, which left me a full hour to wander about before my dinner reservation. 

                              Obesni Dum
I nearly thought of eating elsewhere as I had had quite a day and Slavic and Hungarian cuisine was beginning to wear a tad, but I wandered up and down Wenceslas Square and at about ten minutes before six I presented myself at the huge Pivnice of Obesni Dum – which was about two-thirds empty! I supposed I needn’t have waited, but I was asked if I had a reservation, and in fact I had, so I was placed in the front section, along with a few very large tour groups of Asians. As I sat down another gigantic group of Asians was ushered in and I realized that the place I remembered from the visit with my mother and sister had turned into (or had it always been?) a tourist-hell/mecca. I ordered poorly, the beef stroganoff, but the full liter of Pilsner Urquell I ordered ameliorated the situation somewhat. 
The Pivnice at Obesni Dum
The tourists were having a great time, especially when the old accordianist popped out and regaled them with Strauss waltzed and the Beer Barrel Polka – cheers and applause throughout – except for the man at the solo table. It wasn’t a bad meal, and the situation was more humorous than anything else, but…let’s just say I’ve eaten better in Prague!

After that I walked quickly back to the hotel and again busied myself with blogging and photo-shopping and what-not. An interesting if imperfect Christmas Day. But then is Christmas Day ever perfect? 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Prague Blague: Day 1

Quite early on the morning of 21 August 1968 Airman First Class Jack Hrkach was rudely awakened from a very short sleep. He had just begun his four day break (after four days of working evening shifts, four of midnight shifts, four of day shifts and several hours of drinking beer) at Hof Air Force Base in Germany. He was ordered to report to the site immediately! He panicked as this could only mean that he had screwed up. He was a Russian linguist, listening in to the Soviet Russian Air Force flying in East Germany. Only weeks before a Czech linguist working at the same site (Hof had the dubious distinction of being located only a few kilometers from the Czech and East German borders) had been called in as he had made a mistake in his understanding of a Czech pilot's transmission. The pilot had said, "I see an eagle flying near my wing” which the unfortunate airman translated as, "I have shot him down."  The Czechs were over-eager to shoot down any airplane or helicopter that strayed out of designated air corridors through their flying space. This airman’s gaffe had been sent back to and had awoken DIRNSA (the Director of the national Security Agency outsie Washington DC) and could have meant a reassignment to Fort Lee and cook school for the G.I., an awful fate, though not as awful as if he’d been on the other side of that “iron” curtain: “Send to Siberia!”

Candles for Havel, mine among them
Instead, when he reached the site Airman Hrkach was met with frenzied axtivity, as for most of the night, linguists had been furiously trying to keep up with the traffic that was coming in from Prague. The Russians had invaded, landing cargo planes one every two minutes and taking the city as it slept! A pile of paper at least a foot high was placed in front of Airman Hrkach, who was told to translate it and analyze it carefully but ASAP. He wasn't alone, and it was only the beginning. For the next two weeks Airman Hrkach and his colleagues worked shifts of twelve hours on, twelve hours off, detailing whatever they could discover about the infamous Czech Invasion of 1968. It was a time he’d never forget, even today, when his identity has morphed into the older and wiser (or at least more wizened) Dottore Gianni!

At that time I don’t think I knew who Vaclav Havel was. 

Havel Memorial
I was certainly familiar with Alexander Dubcek, the brave politician who eased restrictions and increased individual freedom in that satellite of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, transforming it during a brief period that has become known as “the Prague Spring.” In August ’68 all that came crashing down, followed by a winter of Prague’s and Czechoslovakia’s discontent, only worse. Read the novel or see the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being for more info fictionalized but frighteningly accurate.

Montgomery Junior College and Florida Atlantic University. A playwright, Havel was able to encode messages to the people in plays written in the absurdist mode, a perfect form for the era as it managed to go over the heads of the censors – for a time at least. The Garden Party, Temptation, and other theatricals meant more to Havel’s audience than western theatre could hope to for its comparatively free playgoers. 

After August ’68 Havel insisted on continuing his work, and was arrested and humiliated for it. He spent a good bit of the 70s in prison or working at menial jobs. His story is a version, though not to the same extent, as the life of Nelson Mandela before apartheid ended. Like Mandela, Havel was rewarded by the people. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Soviet satellites gained freedom and then looked as the entire Soviet Union collapsed, Havel was elected president of the new country. 
Candles etc for Havel's Memorial

Interestingly, while the politician Dubcek was lauded at the time, it was Havel the playwright that the country turned to, and reluctantly he accepted the daunting task. After August ’68 Havel insisted on continuing his work, and was arrested and humiliated for it. He spent a good bit of the 70s in prison or working at menial jobs. His story is a version, though not to the same extent, as the life of Nelson Mandela before apartheid ended. Like Mandela, Havel was rewarded by the people. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Soviet satellites gained freedom and then looked as the entire Soviet Union collapsed, Havel was elected president of the new country. Interestingly, while the politician Dubcek was lauded at the time, it was Havel the playwright that the country turned to, and reluctantly he accepted the daunting task.

From the 1970s forward Havel was a hero of mine. He retained an idealism that gained him enemies in the new “free” world entered into by the Warsaw Pact countries, and insisted on continuing to call for freedom and brotherhood in an increasingly corrupt world – fascinating to see what happens to countries when capitalism is open to them!

His death, only a few days before my journey to Central Europe in this Christmas season of 2011, hit me harder than I could have imagined, and it colored my Christmas in Prague as I’m certain it has more intensively for Czechs who owe him so much, and for Central and Eastern Europeans in general. One can feel in the air in this festive season pauses for a somber or at least reflective silence whenever one crosses Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square), the center of Nove Mesto (New Town) Prague and sees the memorials to Havel increasing. I pass by and pause every day.

Havel Memorial, Wenceslas Square
These paragraphs of mine are not much of a tribute, at least not all that well put together a tribute, to the great human Vaclav Havel, as I haven’t the words. Rest in Peace!

And I’ll now get on to other thoughts on my Christmas in Prague as I return for the third or fourth time to a city I love.

As who would not? Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Every time I visit that fact hits me instantly. My favorite areas are Stare Mesto (the Old Town) and Mala Strana (the “Lesser” Town, across the Vltava River from Stare Mesto, in the shadow of the imposing castle complex above). On my first day here I walked throughout the afternoon in Stare Mesto and did the same in Mala Strana on the morning of my second day. 

St Nicholas Church, Mala Strana
Memories of previous visits came flooding back, along with happy surprises upon discovering something I’d not seen before, or at least not remembered seeing. As I stopped on the steps of St Nicholas Church in Mala Strana yesterday (not to be confused with St Nicholas Church in Stare Mesto), I remembered my mother and my sister Judy haggling with an old Czech stara-baba over lace, for example. As I forced my way through crowds on the street that leads to Charles Bridge, the great be-statued pedestrian river-crossing from Stare Mesto to Mala Strana, I saw the black light theatre Ta Fantastika, and remembered its founders that I’d met in of all places South Florida in the early 1970s.

My hotel is a short distance from Vaclavske Namesti, near the National Museum that towers over one end of it.

The easiest way to get to Stare Mesto is to head down to the square and walk through it, which was the route I took for my first outing, early afternoon of Christmas Eve. The weather was cold but partly clear. I had already stopped at the improvised Havel memorials in the square, and stopped again on my way to the old town, then plunged into a city crowded with tourists and even a few locals(!) in a celebratory spirits.

Christmas market in Wenceslas Square

In addition to the Havel memorials there were two different Christmas markets in Vaclavske Namesti, in which I poked around in, bought my votive candle for Havel, then moved forward, or rather was swept up in the tide of humanity (if you identify tourists with humanity, which ain’t necessarily so!) headed in the direction of Old Town Square. No matter how many tourists, no matter what the weather, it would take a pretty tough old curmudgeion to not be impressed with the buildings surrounding this amazing city center. 
Old Town Square Christmas Market
I’ve seen it several times by now and every time I do I react with an involuntary intake of breath – I think that’s a good way to describe the word “breathtaking.” It was no different this time, or if anything more intense, because of the Christmas Market in the square. I’m not certain in terms of number of booths, but it looks and feels larger than Budapest’s and is definitely larger than Bratislava’s (though that’s an unfair comparison, as Bratislava, despite being a capital city, is nowhere near the size of either Budapest or Prague). I must admit that I’ve been through this market one too many times this trip, and I will probably give it a miss tomorrow, in favor of the Mucha Museum. I find it overrun by tourists, with very little variety in things to buy as well as things to eat – but who am I, in the face of so many?

I continued, swept along by the tide not of the Vltava but of tourists, to the obligatory walk over Charles Bridge, mentioned above. 

Charles Bridge
It was packed, but there is a good reason. The bridge itself is stunning, the views to either side of the river even more so. I did as the rest of the tourists did, snapped photo after photo of the same two or three vistas, and about two-thirds of the way across it turned back, as I wanted to save Mala Strana for the second day. Besides, I had exploring to do. I wanted to be certain I knew how to get to the Estates Theatre. This it turned out was ridiculously easy as that building stands out architecturally in a city of architectural stand-outs. Not that it is more beautiful than others, but it is uniquely shaped and not easy to miss onec you know what you’re looking for. It is steps from Staromestke Namestie, and can be seen on the right as one walks along the main route to that square.

The center of this city is compact, and I mean that not just for Stare Mesto and Mala Strana, but also for the portion of the New Town that most tourists linger in, that section on and around Wenceslas Square.

Wenceslas Square
 There is a good underground rail system, and trams are everywhere, but for the purposes of this trip I have no reason to use any of the public transport on offer. For the weak of heart there are ways of getting up to Hradcany, the castle area, other than on foot, but even though it’s a bit of a huffer and puffer, walking is my preferred way of getting there, as well to the rest of inner Prague. 

On that first afternoon I also walked to Obesni Dum, where I was to have supper after the opera the next day, again, to be sure I could find it, and again I found it easily. But I’d had a long-ish train ride to get from Bratislava to Prague, and I will confess to getting myself hopelessly lost by being over-confident in my walk from the rail station to my hotel, so after a few hours of trekking, so after a mediocre meal and great beer at a “traditional Czech” restaurant on Wenceslas Square, I returned to my hotel, worked on blog and photos, and slept very well.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bloggo Trentiduesime: Bratislava

I was born in Bethlehem – more than 1900 years ago. Well, I used to say when I had to announce it in public. Being in Bratislava makes me think of Bethlehem over 1900 years ago as the air seems filled with “the feeling of Christmas.” The Christmas Fair is great, there are crèches everywhere, people are friendly and engaging…even today when the weather is really miserable I can sense the spirit.
In Bratislava, even the trams are decorated for
But I also think of my real birthplace, Bethlehem PA. My mother’s and my father’s families both lived there, or in the vicinity, mom’s in a house at 1032 First Avenue in Hellertown, dad’s on a farm in Spring Valley. My grandparents on my mother’s side were both Slovakians. He came over in a gigantic wave of immigrants early in the century, specifically 1906. She was born in the States, but her mother was fresh off the boat. Just for the record, my father’s mother was German and born in the U.S. and her husband, my grandfather, was Croatian and born there. I’m not trying to say less about that side of the family, as I hope to visit Croatia in the spring. But the reason I bring this dibject up is that the food here is very similar to what my mom’s mom cooked up for us whenever we came to visit, which was, as often as possible, at Christmas. Grammy Pastir had a huge coal-burning stove in her kitchen – we loved when she carefully lifted the lid off one of the burners so we could watch the red-hot coals sizzle. Opposite the stove was an equally huge table. They were a large family – nine daughters and sons (dad was one of ten brothers and sisters) – good Catholic families we called them, as they certainly did their fair share to propagate the faith.

My hotel & the restaurant
One of the most fascinating things for me was to watch my grandmother roll dough on that table and make all sorts of things out of it – the shells for pierogies and kiffles, cookies etc, but best of all her own noodles – thin and short and delicious, particularly in chicken noodle soup. Well, last night in the rather posh restaurant in the same building as my hotel (in fact it’s where we who are guests at the hotel eat a rather posh breakfast) I wanted Slovak cuisine and ordered the chicken noodle soup, Slovak style as they called it, and a main course of bryndza pierogies stuffed with a rather sharp sheep cheese (bryndza) and served with sour cream and orava bacon. The main course was excellent, but the soup! It was Grammy Pastir’s soup! I got almost dizzy as the smell and taste and all sorts of memories came back to me (shades of Proust’s Swann and the Madeleine). But I think more than anything else what made me realize this was the noodles. I asked the waiter if they made their own noodles (short and thin, just like my grandmother’s) and he said that of course they did. I knew then that in a way I was “home” for Christmas, as in the song…”I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” I nearly asked for more soup, as we ALWAYS got more at Grammy’s, but resisted the urge.

That’s somewhat the way I feel about my entire visit to Bratislava. Christmas is a great time to be here, because that was when we went as a family such a long, long time ago, and even more aptly, because that time is “only in my dreams” now.

That’s my way of saying that it didn’t take me as long to fall in love with Bratislava as it did with Budapest. I was so ready to love it, and of course would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t been able to. But yesterday was a beautiful if cold day (temperature hovering at just about freezing), and that helped a lot. I write that as I sit in my hotel room when I should be out touring today. Instead I am watching the sky darkening on a day that was never really bright, a wintry mix pattering at the windows, one of those days that no matter where Dottore Gianni is, he doesn’t want to be outside, not for long at any rate.

It’s 4 pm now, and in a bit I’m going to brave the elements and get an early meal, schnitzel or goulash or stuffed cabbage (halupki we called it) at one of the somewhat aggressively “Slavic” restaurants in the old town, only a few minutes’ walk from me. In a way I’m glad that the weather is like this, because I raced everywhere yesterday and really got a feel for the city. I’ve seen enough for now. I want to come back. I wrote my brother Tom that if I were a rich man (die-de die-de die-de etc) I’d pay for all the family to visit. I may return as early as this spring, though I think that idea will probably fade with distance and a little time.

But here I am now. So! How did I get here? What did I do yesterday? And this morning? Well…I started much earlier than I needed to yesterday morning, as I was very nervous about catching my train. As it turned out I had plenty of time, and the train was about 20 minutes late in chugging out of the station (actually it doesn’t chug, you can barely feel you’re moving, but I’m always in search of a slightly different verb and find them all too seldom). I was in one of those great compartments that I don’t see often these days, six seats, three on each side, with a glass door that leads out into the narrow corridor up and down the car. And I had it to myself for the entire nearly three hours it took to get from Budapest to Bratislava! The train was due to get much more crowded after that. It had started in Budapest and would end in Berlin, and at Bratislava a horde of people were waiting impatiently to board (by the time we arrived at the Slovakian capital we were 27 minutes behind schedule). But I was off, got in a taxi and ended at…

Marrol’s! This is a great little hotel. It was my splurge this trip at 101 Euros a night (and that for me IS a splurge – I’m paying 152 Euros for four nights in Prague), but it’s worth it. 
A sign of Bratislava's sense of humor:
there are several sculptures like this on,
"Man at Work" around the old town

The bright attractive young woman at reception, Danita, offered me a choice of white, red or sparkling wine or beer as soon as she sat me down to check in. And who was I to refuse? The mini-bar in my room is re-stocked each day, and all items are free (!), the room is lovely, I have over 100 tv channels at my disposal, including a variety of news channels in English. I’m in a plush robe and slippers now as I write – some of you may have seen me in that attire in my latest facebook profile pic. Don’t worry, it won’t stay up long. I look ridiculous. This is the sort of thing that happens when they let peasants into very nice hotels!
But! Back to my first day in Budapest! After finishing my complimentary beverage and checking my e-mail I left to discover this old city that is new to me. It was easier to navigate than I would have thought, as Bratislava’s historic center is smaller than it seems on a map, and even though the roads in its pedestrianized zone are hardly on a grid, when you realize that the center is the main town square you can usually find your way back to that, then start off in another direction. That’s how I did it, anyway.

Marrol’s is in the University district and only a few blocks from the pedestrian zone. I started cockily, without looking at my map, and of course headed in the wrong direction. Surrounding the charming old town is a much duller and more ordinary new town, where most of the business gets of Bratislava gets accomplished, and that’s where I found myself. This is true of most lovely old towns –Verona is one of my favorite inner cities to visit, but would I want to see anything in the new town that surrounds it? Not really. That’s a typical tourist preference of course, but it’s also the preference of a dreamer, at least this one, and with places like Verona and particularly Bratislava I insist on living the dream. 
Hlavni Namesti and Christmas Market

 I soon found my direction and plunged ahead, wandering into the old town (stare mesto) and its pedestrian zone, and stumbling onto one of the loveliest central squares (Hlavni Namesti) that I’ve encountered. It did not hurt that the Christmas Fair was in full swing on its second to last day. Christmas fairs, I am learning, all look similar, but there is a different feel to each of the ones I’ve encountered – curious to see Prague’s tomorrow if the rain holds off, which does not seem to be the case in that city’s forecast, alas.

Bratislava is a capital, but it’s a much smaller city than Prague or Budapest, and there is a small-town feel to the fair. Many people seemed to know each other well.
Nut rolls, poppy seed rolls and more
at the Christmas Market
 There were a lot of tourists at the Budapest Fair, but not nearly so many here, and the vendors seemed amused rather than irritated at my pathetic attempts to order food, to count out Euros, and to attempt to pronounce the few words of Slovak I know. I was excited to see nut rolls and poppy-seed rolls and rolls of many other sorts, but I focused on the two varieties I knew. These were staples of my grandmother’s holiday baking, but in this case there was a notable difference, in that there was less dough involved in the rolls I saw at the fair here, and more center. The Bratislava variety is much thicker than grammy’s and one slice is really substantial. I chose a stand and pointed to a slice of the nut roll, was served in a happy and friendly manner, and munched in heaven as I strolled around other stands, all of which housed rolls very similar to the one I was eating. And then I found another stand and bought a poppy-seed roll and had the same pleasant experience in the buying as well as in the eating of it. I was in the process of trying a third when I realized that I could go on like this forever, and insisted to myself that it was time to stop!
Christmas Market from another angle
The stare mesto is an interesting mix of often really beautiful buildings, some housing restaurants, some gift shops (not an overabundance of those) and café after café. Some of the buildings were official – banks of course, and stores of different kinds, several selling crystal which is a specialty in this area, even a few embassies. I passed the Danish Embassy (nice connection to my fall break in Copenhagen) and the British Embassy (nice connection to guess where?). I also came upon the U.S. Embassy, but it was at the edge of the old town, larger than the others, and while in a beautiful building, surrounded by wired fencing. Altogether a less friendly looking place. Ah, well.

I had read about some of spots that I should investigate and was able to see many of them in that first afternoon.
St Martin's Cathedral
 St Michael’s Cathedral, austere and powerful, which had seen the coronation of several monarchs. The Primatial Palace, home at one time to the powerful bishops that wielded much power in cities such as Bratislava and others as well, such as Salzburg. I didn’t go inside the palace, thinking I’d save it for next day. The town hall, the centerpiece of the main square, which houses the museum of the city’s history. I decided I’d save that also for the next day. I found the old National Theatre, where Die Fledermaus is playing, a perfect choice for the Christmas season. I didn’t step in, instead watched the skaters in the ice rink set up in the square in front of it. In truth I was having such fun just meandering around the streets, people-watching, spotting restaurants where I might want to dine, and just ambling around, that I didn’t feel the need for museums, especially as the sun was so bright and I was so happy.
National Theatre

I spent more than two hours wandering and was getting a little tired and more than a little chilled when I heard jazz being played somewhere nearby, so I investigated. I thought it would be street musicians or recorded music piped in to attract customers. I found what I was looking for in a small café, where just inside the door a quartet was playing, and not playing badly! So I stepped in, ordered a double espresso and sat down to listen. They were really quite good! The lead was a clarinetist, not my favorite jazz instrument, with apologies to Benny Goodman and Woody Allen, but he was quite good. Better yet was the lead guitarist, who offered some really strong solos. The other two instruments were another guitar, used for rhythm, and a stand-up bass, played by the son of the clarinetist. No one was applauding, so I didn’t either, but I did buy a cd of theirs (called Street Music – they probably WERE street musicians in more clement weather) and thanked them on my way out. Brief encounters! Nothing like them!

I wandered a bit longer, but by now I’d been out and about for three hours and decided that I’d better get back to the room. I’d shot a lot of photos and hadn’t published my second Budapest post, so I returned, knowing that I’d get out again the next day. I was more tired than I thought I’d be, and decided to pass on one of the Czech restaurants in the old town in favor of the restaurant in the same building as the hotel.

And that’s where I began the post – with grammy’s chicken noodle soup! Afterwards I helped myself to a beer and peanuts in my room’s mini-bar before I slept, and slept soundly.

About the next day there is not nearly as much to say. I had a sumptuous breakfast. In Budpest as well as in Bratislava the scrambled eggs in one of those silver lidded pans in a typical breakfast buffet were delicious! Not sure how they do it, as when I have them in U.S. hotels they’re luke-warm and runny. The pastries were to die for (no nut roll here however, just a variety of cakes and delicious croissants stuffed with a nutty substance – my tough luck, heh heh), and there was a great spread of lunch meats and cheeses, from which I helped myself and made a sandwich for lunch.
The Castle
I then charged outside, determined to see the castle. If you look back at the beginning of the post you’ll see that I mentioned I stopped early that day – yesterday (I write this on the train to Prague, Christmas Eve morning) – but not before climbing up to the castle. And so I did, on a series of steps that grew a wee bit slippery, as a wintry mix was falling. When I reached the summit, the castle, this mix had turned to a wet snow, and I was feeling the cold, but I was determined to get photos of the views below. 
The Danube & the New Bridge
from the castle
Alas there was not much to view as the town was shrouded in a deep mist or light fog. Whatever it was it was not conducive to photo opps. I did what I could, in snapping them and in photo-shopping them leter, however I couldn’t help but think of the great views I had of the Danube – a river which also flows through Bratislava – back in Budapest. I began to wish I’d tackled the climb to the castle the day before, but you know what? I did what I could, I enjoyed it, and then, snapping all the way, I descended.
Old town on my descent from the castle
I now needed warming up, and decided to do so in the museum of the city’s history. There were few visitors there, in fact I had to wait a bit to pay the entrance fee, as the attendant, bored probably, had understandably taken a break. 
View of Christmas Fair
from tower in Town Hall
When I entered I thought it would be just a few rooms, but the exhibition just kept on going! In fact part of it included a climb into the tower. A brief word about the town hall that housed the museum. I thought it was a church at first, as its tower resembled a stout church steeple. But a town hall it was since the medieval era. And its history was chronicled minutely. I won’t repeat it here, primarily because its history is so similar to that of Budapest, and you’ve read that before, or have you? Have you been slacking on Dottore Gianni’s posts? Eh?

After a good bit of time in the history museum I thought I might hit a café again, chose against it as there was no jazz in the air and I had free tea back at the hotel; but DID hit the Christmas Fair, on its last day and nearly deserted, the weather was so foul; there had another nut roll, this time one that was stuffed with ground peanuts and apples! Unusual, but pretty tasty.

My last stop included a short but interesting brief encounter. I went into one of the gift shops and asked if there were any small Slovakian flags for sale. She told me no, but did offer something with an exact replica of the country’s colors, which I bought. And then we just chatted briefly. She started by saying “Now on the tv is Havel’s funeral.” I responded by telling her I really regretted that I couldn’t be in Prague for it, as he was a hero of mine. For those of you who don’t know (tsk, tsk) Havel was a dissident playwright who spent much of the 1970s in prison for being refusing to discard his beliefs which ran counter to a really oppressive regime. Then in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he was elected president, not so much for his astuteness as a politician, but because he had been brave and outspoken in a dark time. VERY brief history. He died too early, at 75. The shopkeeper and I talked about Havel a bit – she wondered if Hillary Clinton would be too busy to attend the funeral, for example. Then somehow we got to me being a Russian linguist and covering the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She grew very interested, and told me she remembered it well. She’s probably a few years older than I, and said that she had completed ten years studying the Russian language (I’m sure it was required in schools). And then she said what I found so interesting: “After August 1968, I decided to forget Russian. Completely.” And smiled. I understood her. What an interesting way to say what another might have shouted in a series of anti-Russian expletives. A fascinating woman. And then I bid her adieu, she bid me a merry Christmas, and off I went, in the early afternoon, no warmer weatherwise, but I felt a little warmer inside.

I stayed in the hotel most of the afternoon writing, Havel’s funeral and news of it from several English language channels in the background. Again, as I wrote at the beginning, I left the hotel again at about 4:30 in search of an early supper, chose one and had schnitzel and potatoes with a green salad. Good enough, but not brilliant. That was fine with me, and I wandered through the Christmas Market, now closing up and packing up, then marched back in the wintry mix to my hotel, where I worked on my photos and my blog and prepared for my next stop. Prague, land of Havel. I hope to be able to find some sort of memorial and stand silently by it for a few minutes.
Christmas Fair on the evening of 23 December
Did I say I was writing this on the train to Prague? I am, and my battery is just about gone. More soon about my Prague experience in a third installment from this wonderful Christmas trip! Merry Christmas to all!