October 31 2003
As threatened, I took the train from Vienna
to Bratislava this morning. The debate on whether to do it or not,
ironically, was helped along by the same topic as my last post -- the cell
phone rang at 5:30 AM Vienna time. It was a colleague from Australia,
who apparently didn't realize that I was in Europe (or for that matter,
that it was 11 PM Boston time, either!). I didn't recognize her voice
so I hung up on her -- only to have her call my office number, which rings
through to my cell phone. I sent that call a "busy tone",
but then of course the phone beeped a minute later with a new voicemail
notification from the office. Isn't technology great?
Being that I was awake, I headed to Vienna's Sudbahnof via a Starbucks (though not the one closest to my hotel -- it doesn't open until 8 AM!) and the "D" tram, and caught the 8:15 train east. We crossed into Bratislava around 9:10, which seemed like excellent time. But the first station looked like it was on the outskirts of town, so I didn't get off there. Thus, I had to wait aboard while the various customs and immigration staff from both countries made their way through the train. Eventually moving again, we arrived at Bratislava's city station about 9:45.
I went to the somewhat hidden tourist information booth, where a very nice woman gave me a map and walking instructions on how to get to the old town center. Funny overheard question from the previous customer -- "What day is it? You know, is it Monday or Tuesday?" Alrighty, then....
Bratislava is a bustling, clearly Eastern city, with lots of diesel fumes and dirty streets. It is also obviously struggling to modernize, evident by the number of lovingly restored buildings in the old city center, which sit alongside decaying facades. I shot almost a whole roll of black and white film to try to capture the old and crumbling side, and also have some tremendously vivid digital photos that tell the story of progress. Comparison to Prague is inevitable, with the main differences being how small and confined Bratislava's old city is, and that it hasn't been overrun with tourists (the two are likely connected). I saw little of the high-end shopping or expensive hotels that have moved into Prague -- there are no Hiltons, no Marriotts, no Hyatts. The few really nice hotels are situated along the Danube River, as are some of the embassies. I'd love to show you what they look like, but when I attempted to take a picture of the American Embassy, I was quickly warned off by the police.
In fact, the contrast between the US Embassy and all the others is striking. The US one has been "fortress-ized", with concrete barriers, guard stations, a fence, and lots of people with guns. Right next door, the Czech embassy is just the next nice-looking building, with no pretense. It's no wonder the world thinks America is so arrogant.
I was not in a museum frame of mind, so I mainly just walked the streets for a while. Eventually, I tackled the huge climb to reach the old Bratislava castle, which now houses three museums. They were all quite notably devoid of visitors -- at 11 AM, on a bright, sunny Friday. I didn't go in, just walked around the castle, checked out the views, and turned around. Speaking of those views, across the Danube River sits block after block of what are clearly Soviet-era apartments...such a sad contrast from the vibrant and unique character of the old city.
On the way down from the castle, I decided to make one museum stop -- one featuring 300 years of clock-making history. I saw "digital" pocket watches from the 1700s, clocks that were really ornate paintings, and great mantlepieces. Admission there also included admission at the applied art museum, so I took five minutes for that one as well.
On the way back to the train, I was getting pretty hungry, but I wanted to take something with me, to ensure I caught the 1 PM train back. A walk along Obchodna found many restaurants, but it was really unclear who was serving what -- not exactly a lot of English signage (or even German, which I would be able to work with). Thus, I ended up at, uh, McDonald's, paid extra for ketchup, and was on my way. I made good time back towards the train, so I stopped to eat on a bench in front of the presidential palace. How cool is this -- the gate to the palace entrance was open. Now, I'm not sure what would happen if you walked through it, as there were two color guards by the door, but it seemed symbolic to me. There's also a nice park behind the palace, open to all.
One traveller's tip from the train ride back. It turns out that the first stop we made into Bratislava is actually just across the river from the old city. Thus, the first 20 minutes on the train back (and thus, the last 20 on the way in) were a big waste, just circling the city. Apparently the locals all realize this -- a lot of people got off there when we arrived, and a huge crowd joined the train there on the return trip. So my recommendation would be to alight there, pay an extra US$5 equivalent for a taxi into town, and save yourself a lot of time.
I was back in Vienna by 2:30; not a bad trip overall. I'll cover the rest of my day in a separate blog entry later, but just wanted to share while the images were as fresh as ink of the multiple stamps now added to my passport (including my first "train" stamps in Europe, I'm such a travel geek :).