Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Train to Moscow

On Sunday morning, despite not having a Belarus transit visa, we set off for a suburban train station to catch the 10:38 train to Moscow. We had butterflies in our stomachs, not knowing what lied ahead. As we left the hotel, the doorman said he hoped he would see us again soon. We replied in unison, "Not too soon, we hope".

At the station we went to buy two first class tickets. There were none available. The train was full! What about second class? The same thing. The train was full. We couldn't believe it. How can a whole train on a 24 hour journey be full? After a few moments of standing there looking forlorn, the ticket agent suggested that we could try buying a ticket from the conductor on the train.We went to the platform and waited. There were a lot of other people waiting as well. Finally, just after 10, three dirty second class sleeper cars showed up. This was not what we had expected. We approached the conductor who asked in Russian for our tickets. When we gestured we wanted to buy some, he gave us a signal that clearly indicated the train was full. As we stood there trying to decide what to do, a young Polish couple came by and asked if they could help. They spoke to the conductor and reported that the train was full, but maybe someone won't show up. We should wait. We started to chat and I asked him about transit visas. He said it shouldn't be a problem. He didn't need one with his Polish EU Passport. We had both Canadian and British EU Passports.

For the next half hour, we stood near the stern gold toothed conductor. A few moments before the scheduled departure, he showed me a small piece of paper with the number 300 followed by an 's'. I took this to mean each ticket would be 300 zlotys, about 10 pc more than the cost of a second class ticket at the counter. I nodded in agreement. I counted our money and we were short by the amount we had left the housekeeper as a tip! But I suddenly remembered I had a similar amount in my 'fake wallet'. If we got on, we'd have enough cash to pay to pay the fare. As for the visa, we’d worry about it later. We had euros and dollars. With a minute to go, the conductor signaled for us to get on the train.

We settled onto a small compartment with two beds. The conductor came by and while gesturing to the beds, tried to explain something in Russian that I didn't fully understand. But it seemed like another person would be joining us at Terrespol, the last stop in Poland. We didn't care since we were happy to be on the train and not likely to have trouble at the border.
After the train left the station, I went into the next car to visit the couple who had helped us at the station. They were delighted we had made it with just enough cash. They were drinking beer with another couple, who it turned out, were Russians now living in Toronto. I told them about my difficulty understanding the conductor and they offered to help if I needed translation assistance.

I asked them about visas for Belarus. The girl said there shouldn’t be a problem. Her boyfriend was traveling on a Canadian passport and he didn't have one. If there was a problem, I may have to give the border guards money. "That’s how things work around here, I’m afraid to say."
I returned to our compartment to give Sally the news. We laughed at the absurdity of being pleased with ourselves even though we would be on a dingy train for 24 hours with no dining car and no zlotys. Then our conductor appeared and I gave him the agreed upon amount.
He shook his head. "Nyet", he said. "Dollars, no zlotys." I didn't bother to ask if he would take Visa or Mastercard! I knew we had a problem.

I went to see the girl living in Toronto who agreed his request was ridiculous and offered to help me out. She and the conductor got into a long discussion which I didn’t understand until I heard the subject of passports and transit visas came up. After a few more minutes, she turned to me and said, "I'm so sorry but you’re going to have to leave the train. Even if you pay him what he wants, he can't guarantee he can get you into Belarus without a visa. Things have changed. It’s better to get off at the next stop than be turned away at the border five hours from now."
I went back to Sally who was curled up with her new Harry Potter book and gave her the news. Then the conductor came by and gestured that the train was stopping and we must get off right away. But he wanted 20 dollars for all his troubles!The next thing I knew, the train had stopped at a platform and he was carrying Sally’s bag to the exit. As he hurried us off, I stuffed some zlotys into his hand and he passed Sally's bag onto the platform. As the train pulled away, the Russian girl and her boyfriend were standing over him. "I’m so sorry" she said. I wished them good luck.So there we were at a deserted train station one and a half hours from Warsaw. I checked inside and there would be a train in an hour. I now realized I would have to give up on my idea of traveling from Istanbul to Moscow by train. Despite the cost, we would fly in the morning. Assuming all the planes were not fully booked! Before the train arrived, I went into an internet cafй at the station. I found the Belarus website for UK, and Brits did indeed need a transit visa. Moreover, the fees had just gone up in June. It now cost 79 pounds for processing within 48 hours. Even if we could have bought our way out of the situation, it would likely have cost a few hundred dollars each. All Sally could say was that she hopes Canada beats Belarus in their next hockey game.The train ride back to Warsaw was uneventful. We returned to our hotel and I set out to purchase two plane tickets on the internet. I came across a Danish website with a better price on Aerosvit, a Ukrainian airline. By traveling through Kiev we could save about $400, and we wouldn't need a transit visa!

It was the afternoon of the Open Championship, so we set off for a sports bar in the nearby Marriot Hotel, where we managed to catch the last 9 holes seated near a very excited Irish couple whose cousin was married to Padraig Harrington. We missed the 4 hole play-off since Polish television didn't carry it. But we read a text account over the internet. Poor Sergio.

The next morning, after another breakfast of smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, we set off for the airport. This time we would not be back. Around 4 o’clock, we arrived at a small Moscow airport. We went to the information desk where we showed the lady our cruise coupon with the address of the port. "Take the 851 bus outside" she said. "It will take you there." I thought she had to be kidding, but as we left the terminal, there was an 851 bus, so we got on. An hour later, we were let off at a Metro station in what seemed like the middle of the city. All we had was a picture of the ship, and the address in English. I showed it to a few people, including some taxi drivers, reflecting on the absurdity of the situation. "Do you know where we can find this ship?"Eventually, someone came along and offered to help in English. With a smile, he said we were actually quite close. We didn’t need to take the Metro, or a taxi. We could walk to the ship, and he gave us directions. So there we were, walking along a busy Moscow street, pulling our luggage, looking for a 5 storey cruise ship!Eventually we found it, next to a Stalinesque Port Building, and are now aboard. We look forward to 11 relaxing days of cruising up the Volga to St. Petersburg. Now someone else can make all the arrangements. Pass me the vodka.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Revitalized Warsaw

Before arriving in Warsaw, we could only think of one thing: grey. That was our image of the city. It turned out that we were very wrong.

Stepping out of what was onc
e a clean, modern 1970’s train station, we were met by two amazing sights; the gigantic and imposing Museum of Culture, built by Stalin, and the Palonia Palace Hotel, just a short distance away. But to get there we had to climb through sand and construction debris since the tram tracks were being replaced along what appeared to be the major road in the city.

The hotel, with its beautiful renovated skylit lobby, was a very welcoming site. Once again, my name got us a good room since it was pronounced almo
st the same way as the Hotel General Manager, Peter Goehle. After cleaning up, we left the hotel to explore. But we were soon back since it started to rain. Sally found her rarely used rain jacket. I found a small umbrella hidden at the bottom of the luggage, and we were off. After ten minutes we couldn’t go any further, since an amazing thunder and lightning storm was happening. I started to imagine a conversation at the Richmond Country Club. “Did you hear about the Gellers? They were struck by lightening in Warsaw.” “What in the world were they doing in Warsaw?”When the storm subsided we tried to find the celebrated ‘Old Town’. But it was getting darker and wetter, so we decided to return to the area around our hotel. We found a pedestrian street lined with rain soaked restaurants, and went into the most Polish looking place, the Kaiser Restaurant. Since there were no pictures on the menu, we asked if there was one in English. It arrived, but we still didn’t know what most of the items were, so we asked for recommendations. We had one of the best meals of our trip.

The next morning we enjoyed the best breakfast of our trip. It's not often that we have champagne, vodka and caviar for breakfast.
After eating enough for a week, I went onto the internet to explore the options for getting to Moscow. The plane fares that I found were ridiculously expensive (you could get a return ticket across Canada for less than the cost of the two hour flight) but there was a train routing that avoided Belarus, through Lithuania and Latvia. (I had always wanted to go to these places!) We then set off for the train station and a Travel Agency to enquire about Visas, plane and train tickets. On our way we came across a bookstore with a Harry Potter poster in the window. It was July 21st, the day of the release of the latest and final installment. Sally went inside to see, if by any chance, they had an English version. “We only have an English version” said a very charming girl. “It won’t be translated into Polish for a long time.”

We had much less success at the offices of LOT, the Polish airline and train station. At LOT we were told a
return ticket would be the equivalent of $780, but a one way ticket was about $670. For the two hour flight.

At the train station, the news was worse. The route that I had found through Lithuania and Latvia was not a viable option. “It will take 30 hours to Riga” said a very knowledgeable young man. “Furthermore, there’s no train connection to Moscow.”
I asked him about the alternatives. There were three direct trains to Moscow, including a morning train that left from a suburban station at 10:35, arriving at 9:20. Perfect we thought, but what about a transit visa. “I think you will need one” he said. “I see people being turned back all the time.” We went upstairs and found a very harried travel agent. She spoke a bit of English. “You don’t want to fly to Moscow” she said. “Very expensive. Come back on Monday.”

During our entire trip, we had never been in a predicament quite like this. We had been fortunate to find a cruise that fit our dates, and managed to reserve one of the few remaining cabins. We had arranged a last minute visa to Russia in about an hour. I really wanted to travel all the way from Istanbul to Moscow by train but we didn’t have a visa for Belarus, and weren’t absolutely sure if we could get there without one. At the same time, I was reluctant to pay almost $1500 for a two hour flight. Furthermore, the transfer from the airport to the cruise ship could be another $100.

In the end, we decided we would take the morning train, thinking the worst that could happen wou
ld be getting turned back at the border. At least it would be daylight, and we would still have time to return to Warsaw from where we would take the plane the next morning. Armed with this decision, we set out to see the sights of Warsaw. We found a surprisingly beautiful city. It wasn’t grey at all. The buildings were impressive; there was a lot of renovation and new construction taking place; there were impressive gardens and the Old Town, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site was remarkable for its ‘historic’ painted buildings that had been rebuilt following the war. There were good facilities for tourists, including a public transit bus that visited many of the major sites, and we had a terrific afternoon. That evening, we had dinner in the Old Town square, listening to a jazz concert. We then came across a large tent where hundreds of people were gathered to watch a filmed version of an opera. It was all free. Around 10:30, anticipating a big day on Sunday, we returned to our hotel and settled into our very luxurious surroundings. As we ate the chocolates on our pillows, we couldn't help but wonder where we would be sleeping the next night!

Krakow: Jewish Style

We had not initially planned on coming to Poland. However, just before leaving Vancouver, I had a very enjoyable breakfast with Tom Staniskis with whom I have worked on numerous projects over the years. He urged me to consider a visit to Poland, and this was echoed by other travelers we met along the way. They all recommended Warsaw and Krakow, a historic city that wasn’t bombed during the war. I was also interested in visiting Poland as a result of a recent front page story in the International Herald Tribune describing an interesting new phenomenon in Poland; the resurgence of Jewish Culture amongst Poland’s younger generations of non-Jews. Krakow was particularly singled out for its new restaurants featuring traditional Jewish style foods and music.

Another reason for coming to Poland was the Russian visa situation. Despite the assurances from the Russian Embassy official in Prague, both my travel agent and the cruise booking agency were insistent that I needed a visa to get into Russia. Moreover, we might need a ‘transit visa’ to travel by train through Belarus.

Upon arriving in Krakow Thursday morning, we checked into a hotel with the odd name of Qubus. It was a new hotel, selected by Sally, with a rooftop swimming pool and spa facility that was a delight to use after a night on the train. We then set off to find a place for breakfast. While most were closed, we stumbled upon the Hotel Ester where we enjoyed a very nice Jewish-style buffet breakfast with different kinds of smoked fish and herrin
g. Well I enjoyed the herring. Sally preferred the fresh fruit.

Then we were off to the Russian Embassy. It was closed. You would think we would have learned by now. We now know it is only open Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings everywhere in Europe!

We spent the rest of the day touring around with the hop-on hop-off bus. Krakow is a very beautiful historic city. Unfortunately, we have been spoilt with beautiful cities during the past few weeks. Indeed, as we reflect on our travels, we are reminded of the old movie, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium”.

Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic,
and now Poland.

In the afternoon, Sally set off to visit some surprisingly elegant shopping centres, while I returned to the old Jewish quarter. I found ads for Klezmer concerts, Jewish bookstores, Noah’s Ark Restaurant, Yoshe’s Fashions, a car blazoned with Hebrew advertising for Restaurant Ethnicza, and Travel Agencies offering ‘Schindler’s List’ Trips. That evening, we had dinner at the Ariel Restaurant, seated next to a German tour group. We all had the Jewish specialties and listened to Yiddish melodies played by a small combo. It was almost surreal since none of the people in the restaurant, or working in the Jewish businesses were Jewish. The next morning we set off for the Russian Embassy. Outside we met a very helpful fellow, who was picking up Visas for his truck drivers. He asked if we had our AIDS certificate. “What?” I asked. “A medical certificate confirming we don’t have AIDS” he replied. “Is this required by everyone?” Sally asked. He responded that all Poles were required to produce this, and it can take some time to get one. “Oh my God”, we thought.

After waiting quite a while, we were finally admitted into the Embassy. We were instructed to fill out more application forms, and went to see an official behind the counter. I showed him our papers, including our Czech application forms. In no uncertain terms he told us we had to have a Visa. When I told him that we needed to be in Moscow by Monday to board a cruise, he said we could have our visas that day, but “it will cost you”. He then directed us to a bank where we would pay.

Outside we met our new friend. He had been waiting in case we needed help. He too was off to the bank and we set off together. I needed quite a large sum of money and wasn’t sure if I could withdraw it all from the ATM at one time. “I wonder if they’ll take a credit card”, I asked my friend and he went off to ask the teller in Polish. “Yes they will” he said. I handed the teller my HSBC Mastercard. “No” she said. “Just Visa.” Of course I thought. Only a Visa card for a Visa!

Half an hour later, we had our passports back with shiny Russian Visas. As I was leaving, I asked about the Belarus ‘Transit Visa’. The Russian official said he didn’t know if it was required or not. So we set off to find the Belarus consulate. There wasn’t one in Krakow. There was one in Warsaw, but it would be closed on the weekend. And we were hoping to take the train on Sunday morning. We found a Travel Agent who was very helpful and tried to phone Warsaw for us. She couldn’t get through to the Embassy since its phone number was no longer in service. From their website, it appeared that Americans and Canadians required a Visa. I forgot to ask about Brits.

We returned to our hotel wh
ere we had a very nice lunch and discussed our dilemma. Not knowing what to do, we decided to find a hotel and go to Warsaw. We went onto the internet and picked the most highly rated hotel in the city, The Palonia Palace, built in 1913. A number of reviewers said it had the best breakfast they had ever enjoyed in Europe! We then took a cab to the train station, bought two tickets, and were told to run for the train since it was about to leave the station. Two hours and forty five minutes later, we were in Warsaw.

As we reflect on Krakow, we have very mixed emotions. On one hand it is a beautiful old city. On the other, it a city full of sadness. It was very difficult to visit the Jewish museums and wander around the streets that had once been home to a large and vibrant community. At the same time, it was fascinating to see the new activity. We couldn’t help but wonder what the Jews who had been assembled in a square just outside our hotel, and sent off to nearby Auschwitz, would have thought about this resurgence of ‘Jewish life’ in their city.

You're Going to Love Prague

“You’re going to love Prague”. That’s what everybody told us when we mentioned that the capital of the Czech Republic was part of our itinerary. What they didn’t tell us was to prepare for 40 degree temperatures. While I thought I was booking a hotel a bit removed from the heart of the tourist area, it turned out we were close to everything. We stayed at the Eurostar Thalia, which was rated as a five star hotel on Wotif and other hotel listings. I mention this to raise the subject of hotel ratings, and the inconsistencies between countries. In some places, the number of stars is a highly guarded badge of honour. It is displayed on the outside of the property; on the stationary; and sometimes even on the carpet, as was the case with the Gellert. Most hotel booking websites distinguish between the star rating awarded by a third party, and a ‘self-rating’ which applies to some properties. However, we have yet to figure out how the ratings are established in each country.

All of this is to say that although the Thalia was a nice hotel, it was not a five star hotel by Canadian standards Unfortunately, the air conditioning had a hard time keeping up with the unusually hot weather, and there was no swimming pool when we really needed one. But the room and bathroom were beautifully appointed and the breakfast was excellent. Perhaps too excellent!

While we were sure we would lose weight on this trip, given a regime of daily walking and exercise, we hav
e discovered that this is almost impossible when staying in hotels that include a buffet breakfast in the price of the room. The Thalia offered all the things I love…eight different types of salamis, sausages and smoked meats; a similar number of cheeses; an array of smoked fish, eggs, fresh fruits, cereals and so on. There was a large table devoted to breads, pastries and desserts just in case we hadn’t had enough to eat. Fortunately, the windowless restaurant, with its luminescent red walls felt a bit like the downstairs washrooms at John Evan’s Opus Hotel. Otherwise, we might have lingered even longer.

Our first stop Monday morning was the Russian Embassy. We were prepared to stay in Prague for up to a week if necessary to get the visa and avoid what we were told could be an exorbitant ‘quick processing’ fee. When we arrived at the embassy there was a line up since people were only being let through the gate one at a time. After an hour, we finally got into the Embassy. We filled out the visa application forms as best we could, given that they were in Russian and Czech, and finally got to see an official seated behind a large sheet of glass.

“Do you speak English?” we nervously asked. Yes he did. We gave him our carefully guarded Russian cruise ship papers that had been faxed to us in Ljubljana, along with our application forms, passports and photographs, and waited nervously. I
will never forget his response.

“You don’t need a visa. This is good enough”. It seemed too good to be true. “Are you sure?” I asked, not really wanting another answer. “Yes he said. You don’t need a visa since you are part of a group cruise tour. Just have the operator notify the authorities of your port of entry.” We were overjoyed, since this
meant we could stay in Prague as long or short a time as we wanted. Moreover, we didn’t have to pay any fees. But somehow this information didn’t seem right since it contradicted everything we had been told by our travel agent and the cruise booking company in New York. Not knowing what to do, we set off to see the city, and celebrate our good news.

Prague truly is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Fortunately, it was not bombed during World War II, and each building is interesting and oftentimes majestic. We
were constantly stumbling across magnificent parks or urban squares lined with bars, cafés and restaurants. Chuck Brook and Margot Paris are coming here in August and I don’t think there will be enough memory cards in the city to meet their photographic needs.

Its beauty is further enhanced by a river winding through the centre. This time it is not the Danube, but it’s the same colour: brown. But it doesn’t matter. At night, reflections from the illuminated buildings are magical, and dozens of photographers line the banks with their tripods trying to get that award winning shot. Because of our self imposed weight restrictions, I didn’t have a tripod, so I used Sally’s head. Unfortunately, she rarely kept still enough to get any decent night photos! Although Prague is quite a large city, it has a surprisingly compact downtown, and an excellent subway, tram and bus network. We rarely waited more than a few minutes at a transit stop. Interestingly, Prague also prices its transit based on time, rather than distance traveled, although an all day pass was available for only $4.

The city offers a lot a variety in theatre and concerts and numerous different tours. I was surprised to learn that one of the most popular tours is of the Jewish Quarter. While Jews figured prominently in the life of the city, and ‘The Jewish Quarter’ is identified on maps and street signage, there are very few Jews living here today.

However, every week, thousands visit its synagogues, museums and cemetery, where graves have been placed one above the other over the past 500 years. Through a sad irony, Prague has one of the world’s best collection of Jewish artifacts since Hitler decided to collect vast quantities of religious objects, silverware, jewelry, and artwork, with the intention of setting up a museum of the ‘lost race’. Prague has a very good choice of restaurants, although most tend to feature goulash, smoked pork, and goose on their menus. There’s also a lot of cabbage. The first night, we selected what appeared to be a very old and elegant restaurant with a nice menu. Unfortunately, we missed the sign mentioning the gypsy music. Sure enough, we had no sooner ordered when the musicians came out to play. While I don’t mind this sort of thing, Sally is uncomfortable having a violinist standing over her while she tries to enjoy her avocado and prawns. As a result, she spent the evening carefully watching the violin player as he moved about the room, dreading the thought that he might come over to our table. Fortunately, by the time he did arrive, we were ready to leave. As is our practice, we took a river tour through the city. Along the banks, amidst the grand old buildings, I came across one newer building that looked like it was falling over. That is because it was designed by Frank Gehry (who designed amongst other things the Guggenheim in Bilbao). Although very whimsical and contemporary in design, it seems to fit into the traditional five storey streetscape quite well.

While we walked around a relatively small area, we never got tired of the city. Because of the temperature (we were told one day was the hottest day on record) we occasionally headed to the air conditioned shopping centres. Sally again discovered Marks and Spencers, and bought me a summer suit, since we are soon heading off on a River Cruise, and she thought I might need something other than pants with zip off legs.

Wednesday night, after three hot but interesting days, we took a tram from outside our hotel directly to the train station. At half past eight, we boarded the 8:55 overnight train for Krakow, the next stop on our journey from Istanbul to Moscow. As Sally was getting settled, I went off to check out the dining car. There wasn’t one. So with 15 minutes to spare, I ran back into the station to buy something for our evening meal. It took longer than it should have, and I have never ran so hard as I did to make sure that I got back onto the train before it left the station. As we settled into our little compartment with smoked goose legs and some still unidentified sandwiches, we discovered we were about three times as old as the rest of the passengers in the car. So at 10 o’clock, as they all partied in the corridor and each others bedrooms, we popped some sleeping pills and went to bed. We slept soundly until about 3 am, when the Polish border patrol knocked on our door. The joys of international overnight train travel in Europe!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bratislava, Slovakia

I can distinctly remember sitting in our family room on Deering Island last December looking at a map of Europe and deciding we should visit Slovakia, if only to discover how different it is from Slovenia. Well now we know.

We have just spent two days in Bratislava, and once again, we were very pleasantly surprised. This is a city where I thought I might have to carry a fake wallet in the event I was held up at night. But it wasn’t necessary. Bratislava turned out to be a very cultured, lively, and safe city.

From the train station we took a tram to the downtown Tourist Centre. It was very well organized with extensive brochures in almost a dozen languages. We arrived without a hotel reservation assuming we would have no trouble finding a place to stay. We were right. We were presented with an extensive choice of accommodation, ranging from very luxurious hotels to pensions and hostels and private accommodation.

Our preference was a hotel, but we were encouraged by the lady behind the counter to consider a private apartment. It seems many of the local residents leave town in July and August and rent out their places for some extra income. Since we had had such good luck in Ljubljana, we agreed and were soon whisked away in a taxi to an apartment in what seemed to be a very nice part of the old town. Ten minutes later, we were sitting alone, holding the keys to a very large apartment with far more space than we needed. We carefully wrote down the address and marked our location on a map to ensure we didn’t get lost after a night on the town. We then set off to explore. It was Friday night.

Like Slovenia, Slovakia does not consider itself part of Eastern Europe. It thinks of itself as being in Central Europe, at the heart of everything. For those of you who like me can’t figure out which country was once part of which, Slovakia used to be Czechoslovakia until the country split in 1993 (without a referendum, I might add) .Today, compared to Slovenia, Slovakia seems to be struggling economically, but there are signs that things are improving. There is an impressive number of construction cranes in the downtown; the bars and restaurants seemed very busy, albeit on Friday night; and the cost of many things is approaching a par with Hungary and Slovenia.

The old town is full of very grand and impressive buildings and public spaces. While many buildings need exterior repair and renovation, I was particularly taken by the amount of public art, the number of cultural institutions, and what felt like an overall creative ambience.

I was surprised to find a Jewish Museum that celebrates the contribution of the Jews to the life of the city before the Second World War. There were numerous palaces, churches, and a castle overlooking the city. At the National Museum, which forms part of the castle complex, we saw three excellent traveling exhibitions on French tapestries, Giotto frescoes, and the engravings of Albrecht Durer.

Like Budapest, the city is bisected by the Danube. It is not the Blue Danube. It’s almost the same colour as the Fraser River outside our house. We took a short cruise traveling under some very impressive new bridges. We were told that one was constructed in two halves that were swung into place, connecting in the middle. (Of course they met perfectly; the engineers from this part of the world are very capable!) At the top of one new bridge sits a revolving restaurant that no doubt helped fund its construction.

This was just one example that capitalism is alive and well in Bratislava. There are many other examples, such as the number of large billboards around town on the sides of multi story apartment buildings. Can you imagine that being permitted in capitalist Vancouver? I also saw some interesting new apartments, including this multi-coloured block that reminded me a bit of Albania.

While we enjoyed wandering around the city and meeting some charming local people, we do have one complaint. The food. Traditional Slovakian food is not something we will yearn for. I will not be recommending this city to David and Barbara Gillanders who select their travel destinations, in large part, based on the quality of the local restaurants. Most Bratislava restaurants seem to cater to those who like stewed beef combined with chicken livers, onions, garlic and peppers, on a bed of sour cream. (Ok, to be fair, there are other choices, but there sure are a lot of goulashes made from different animals in very heavy sauces.)

After two days it was again time to move on. We spent Sunday morning sitting in our large apartment, backing up photos on DVD’s while watching BBC World. Suddenly, the announcer said Vancouver has just been voted the most livable city in the world, beating out Melbourne, GenevaZurich. “We can’t let them get away with this” he said. “Let’s take a look.” What followed was a 10 minute trip around town with CBC’s Margaret Gallagher and Jamie Mah. Then they went off on the train to Whistler and whale watching on Vancouver Island. and Our city and province looked pretty good, and got the thumbs up from the BBC!

At the train station, before setting off for Prague, we had two remaining tasks. When we purchased our train tickets from Budapest to Bratislava, we were told it was cheaper to buy return tickets than one way tickets! So we wanted to give away the return portions to someone who might use them. I also had some unused Bratislava transit tickets. I mention this since they were unusual in that Bratislava tickets are priced on the time traveled, not the distance. I had never encountered this before, and didn’t want to see the time go to waste.

At 12:25 a train destined for Berlin arrived at Platform 1. Learning from our past mistakes, we used up our remaining korunas to stock up on hearty sandwiches in case we got hungry before Prague. Of course, this time there was an elegant dining car on the train. The trip was pleasant, although unbelievably hot, since this part of Europe is going through an unprecedented heat wave. Hopefully it will over before our next trip from Prague to Krakow. In the meanwhile, we are looking forward to at least days in Prague, and maybe longer if there are complications with the Russian Visas.

As for Bratislava, we will be back. Despite the food, this city is definitely worth a return visit. We also think Slovakia would be an easy country in which to rent a car and explore the surrounding countryside with its numerous UNESCO sites, spas, castles, palaces and even a model town. Check it out, before it becomes as expensive as Slovenia.