Thursday, 10 November 2011

Slovakia 2008

Slovakia and Hungary 2008

A month or so beforehand I had been discussing how was the best way to travel with my old friend the Lowlander. The (unconscious) inspirer of this debate was Lenin[1], the Irishman whom we’d met on the train to Kazakhstan during our Trans-Asia trip and who was now in the midst of another epic voyage, this time through Africa to Ireland. Epic voyages you see, are how Lenin travels. For years on end he’ll only visit friends during the holidays, or go sightseeing somewhere fairly local, saving up patiently and carefully and then, Wham! Six months on the road! I however, being a man who has never been able to grasp the concept of patience, do things different. The jaunt across Asia asides, (and that was only two months anyhow, small fry by Lenin’s standards), like to take a week here, a fortnight there; a long weekend in Stockholm, five days in Ireland. Having a wife and a child these days of course means that anything really hardcore is an impossibility anyway, but that is beside the point. The argument remained, just how was the best way to do it, one long jaunt or lots of smaller trips? I was in favour of the short trips.

“Think of our Asia trip, how much did we miss because we were too tired and couldn’t face anymore sights? To think, we missed Aralsk and so much in China, let alone all those towns in Russia that we passed through! We just couldn’t cope with it all! But on smaller trips you have the energy to see it all and then afterwards, when you’re back home you have time to think about it, read up on the things you saw, analyse it.”

“That is true, but then also do you not think that there was something special about the big trip, a feeling. You could see how it all fitted together; how Asia blended into Europe.”

He had a point, yet so did I. Perhaps a compromise should be the order of the day? “The best solution would probably be to go on a long trip and then at a later date to return to the places en route and explore them in greater detail.”

“Yes, that probably would be the best solution,” agreed the Lowlander.

In the summer of 2003 the Sibling and I undertook a Trans-Europe expedition. Starting at Varna in Bulgaria, (which is where I happened to be living at the time), we went up to Ruse, then across the Danube into Romania staying a night in Bucharest, then a few days in and around Brasov in Transylvania before Budapest, then Bratislava – with a side-tip to Vienna – onto Prague and finally a mammoth rail journey across Germany in a day ending up in Rotterdam where the Lowlander picked us up and we unwound for a pleasant few days in his house on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland before catching a short flight across the North Sea to Blighty. The trip was incredible, we saw a great deal and we definitely got the big picture. Unfortunately though, we missed much, much more. First and foremost there was Berlin which we’d planned to visit and which we did in fact spend ten minutes in, whilst changing trains, but after five European capitals already, neither of us could muster up the enthusiasm for yet another. Equally galling though was of all the countries that we’d passed through – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands – not one had we spent long enough to get any real feel for except Romania, the only country where we’d stopped and explored some of the provinces. That didn’t matter particularly for the Netherlands and Bulgaria which I knew well from other trips but for the rest it was a shame; yes, we could tick them off on the Countries Visited list of life, but it was still a bit of a cheat. Indeed, it was a situation that required rectification.

That rectification began in 2007 when I spent a long weekend in Berlin.[2] That trip I enjoyed far more than if we’d have included on our 2003 itinerary, I was more ready to appreciate it and so consequently I saw a lot more, but nonetheless, having the bigger picture from the earlier trip undoubtedly helped. It was a model to follow.

And so, a year and three quarters further on and it’s Part 2 of Filling in the Gaps. Both the Sibling and I found Bratislava to be the friendliest of all the cities that we visited and one of the most inexpensive too and so why not return there and see something of the little country over which it reigns? And so, on Monday 24th November, 2008, I emerged from a plane into the cold and sleet of Bratislava’s International Airport.

By the time I’d got through the terminal and outside to the bus stop, it had begun snowing. I didn’t mind, it was the first snow of the year for me, and besides, I had a large Ottoman fur hat with me that Lenin had brought me back from Turkey. So what if it looked a bit ridiculous and I drew strange glances from the bemused Slovaks? I’ve long had a penchant for silly hats and this one did what it said on the tin – under it my head was as warm as toast. And besides, the snow also signified two other things for me; firstly it spoke of out-of-season travel and secondly, it is quintessentially Eastern European.

Out-of-season travel is great: Hotels are empty and often cheaper and you’re the only tourist for miles. Museums get opened up specially for you and the hawkers and hasslers are all at home warming their toes. For a miserable, stingy anti-socialite such as I, it is travel heaven.

And Eastern Europe is fun whatever the season: Outside of the major cities it still attracts few tourists and all the locals tend to speak Slavic languages that I can partially comprehend. On top of that, it is cheap, populated by astonishingly pretty girls and has a great communist legacy that never ceases to fascinate me.

On the last visit I’d liked Bratislava. After Budapest it was homely and provincial; it certainly didn’t feel like a capital. When we got there no one came up to us on the railway station to offer accommodation and we had to go searching for a hotel. There weren’t many to be had and in the end we had to go out of town and deep into the suburbs where the Sport Hotel stood. It was a fantastic place; a few dingy rooms attached to a local football club and run by a friendly, chatty bleached blonde who reminded me of a pub landlady. To get into the city we had to take a trolleybus and when she realised that we only had notes, she kindly lent us enough kroner coins to get us there and back whilst carefully explaining the intricacies of the city’s transportation system. It was that kind of service that caused both the Sibling and I to remember Slovakia fondly.

The Bratislava of 2008 however, was a different city entirely. The Sport was listed in neither the Rough Guide nor the Lonely Planet these days and in its place were long lists of pensions and hotels. On the drive in one could still see clearly that the city was planned by communists – long, wide straight boulevards were the order of the day – but now many of the spaces in-between those boulevards were filled with IKEA or McDonalds, not monolithic engineering plants. It was more like Minnesota than Moscow.

Hlavna railway station where the bus dropped me off was, however, unchanged, an old friend in a new world, but searching for accommodation nearby revealed that Slovakia was no longer the bargain that she’d once been. In the end I settled on Hostel Posonium which was close by, cheap and ran by an extremely amiable young man who spoke excellent English. Conversely though, it was alas, a hostel.

I may consider myself to be a ‘real’ traveller, (whatever one of those might be), but one part of the ‘real’ travel experience that I’ve never enjoyed has been dormitories. Doubtless you can meet some swell folk in them and save yourself a fistful of dollars, but I always feel dirty and invaded in them and rarely sleep well. In the past I used them when I had to, out of necessity, but these days, with a little extra cash, the necessity factor has, thankfully, gone.

As I hadn’t eaten since the morning, I went out in search of food. The proprietor of the Posonium had kindly pointed out a good restaurant but I got lost along the sleet-strewn streets and ended up by a large new skyscraper with the interior lights turned out to make a gigantic € symbol. I later learnt that this building was the national bank and the € was to celebrate the imminent arrival of the euro, on January 1st, 2009, and interestingly, Slovakia had achieved it before the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary!

Among those heartless wet wide boulevards with new office blocks galore, my previous impression of Bratislava was blown away. Had it seemed so provincial before because I’d approached from cosmopolitan, urbane Budapest, or was it that Bratislava had actually changed? I retreated into a restaurant called ‘Galileo’ to think about it and enjoy some Slovak fayre that turned out to be the best that I sampled all trip. First up was a bowl of garlic soup (Opavska cesnacka) and then some fried pork stuffed with mushrooms, onions and garlic (Pochutka janoski). These were washed down with two glasses of beer and – the alcohol having warmed my blood – I then popped round the corner to a bar in an arched cellar for two more before stumbling back to my dismal dorm bed.

That night I didn’t sleep well. It took ages to drift off and just as I did three American girls came in, switched the light on, chattered and decided to go for showers, one by one. By the time that they’d settled down an alcohol-induced headache kicked in and it was another hour or so before I drifted off. Before I knew it, my wake-up call came: I had a train to catch at 07:47 and I vowed not to sleep in another hostel again that trip, whatever the financial savings might be.

Since my 2003 trip had skipped provinces for capitals, I had decided that this time it would be the other way round. I’d mapped out a tentative route across Slovakia halting at various smaller towns and cities only to loop back into Hungary for a stop in Budapest to catch up on an old friend that now lived there. This plan I figured would both break up the journey and give me a good feel of Slovakia. My first planned stop was Trenčín, a small city in the Váh river valley an hour and a half away from the capital.

Even before the train had stopped, I knew that I had chosen widely with Trenčín. The town was dominated by a spectacular castle perched high on a cliff above it. Alighting from the train I enquired of the times onwards and bought my next ticket. As the staff spoke no English, I reverted to the only other language I have – Bulgarian – which is widely understood in Slovakia due to its proximity to the native tongue. Afterwards – much to my delight – the clerk asked if I was Bulgarian, which meant that I had at least demonstrated some proficiency in that language. Alas though, it was the only time that that mistake was made; all the other Slovaks assumed that I was Russian.

Trenčín turned out to be a fine place indeed. I stopped first at the town’s museum where I, being the only visitor all day, was treated to a detailed guided tour (in Slovak) of the exhibits by a very proud curator. Most I didn’t understand, but I did grasp that the majority of what was on display had been collected by a certain 19th century gent who collected anything from stuffed animals to ecclesiastical artefacts. On such men are our provinces built!

After the museum I wandered down the main street which boasted a fine baroque church (shut) and then up a delightful 16th century covered staircase to another church (also shut). Being halfway up the hill, I then continued up to the castle itself which was only viewable on a guided tour. I bought the ticket and waited at the designated spot but no guide nor fellow tour-takers materialised and I was about to give up hope when some quarter of an hour after the specified time a surly and somewhat stout girl arrived and opened up. “Come!” she commanded, but then that was all the commentary I did get as she proceeded to open up a variety of rooms full of nondescript portraits whilst stoically maintaining her silence and sullen expression. Nonetheless, the tour was worth it, if only for the views of the city below and the spectacular fortifications of the castle, though my feet did not thank me for the trial of descending a steep, ice-covered path afterwards.

Trenčín Castle

Following my visit to the castle, I had over an hour to waste before my train departed, so I wandered a little more around the town, marvelling at the striking art-deco synagogue – whose dome I had originally mistaken for that of a mosque! – and buying essentials in a modernist shopping complex that had obviously once been the communist department store. It reminded me of the “Universalen magazin” in Stara Zagora which, when I first visited Bulgaria in 1998, was still run using the socialist system where one chose one item at one counter, paid for it at another and then collected it at a third. By 2002 however, this system had been superseded and the large, open-plan store had been divided into numerous pokey units selling cheap, low-quality household goods, knock-off CDs or cheap clothing from Turkey and China. Just like this shopping complex in Trenčín.

After my shopping spree, feeling peckish, I asked at the tourist information centre about Trenčín’s culinary options and was directed by towards “Gastrocentrum”, a proletarian canteen par-excellence where, according to the TIC guy, all the dishes are prepared by trainee chefs. I indulged in another meal of very garlicy soup (this time with tripe and called “Držková”), a side salad and pork stuffed with a variety of vegetables and was served by a pretty, young blonde with a pair of delightful, long legs. Full and content, I ambled back to the railway station and drank in the buffet until my train arrived, enjoying the rare pleasure of watching the highlights of a Stoke City victory (1-0 against West Brom) with commentary in Slovak.

The train journey from Trenčín to Spišská Nová Ves, my next port-of-call was infinitely more exciting than the previous one had been. Gradually the hills rose on either side of the tracks and the arable plains disappeared in favour of the forested Váh valley. Every so often the dramatic countryside was punctuated by some very communist town of fifty thousand or so inhabitants, countless grey apartment blocks and an ugly industrial complex. Some people might hate them, but for me it was just like being back in Bulgaria which evoked fond memories and only the baroque domes of the Catholic churches were there to remind me that I was several hundred miles to the north-west.

Communist Slovakia may once have been, but the signs of change were also plain for all to see. There was a wealth about the country that I had not expected to see; houses were well-maintained, everything was professionally done, nothing jerry-built, new industries springing up and of course, on the 1st January, Slovakia was due to accept the euro ahead of its traditionally richer neighbours, (back in 1990, the Czech Republic had been glad to cast off its poor, rural sister). Even after a mere four year, EU membership had already had a massive impact here and I imagine that one those industrial complexes have been modernised or bulldozed and the apartment blocks replaced with houses, there will be little to show that Slovakia ever had a communist government.

The highlight of the journey came when around a bend in the river the majestic Strečno Castle came into view, perched on a cliff top. The train then crossed the river in front of it before plunging into a long, dark tunnel.

One aspect of that trip that was less positive gathered in intensity as our train rumbled along its way. Early on a very attractive young lady and her friend entered the compartment, providing some enticing diversion for my eyes when they were tired of the mountains outside. Unfortunately though, due to the weather outside being cold, the heating was on full whack and alas, when the heating is turned up, humans tend to sweat. This didn’t bother me until I went out to use the toilet and upon re-entering the compartment, was overwhelmed by the odour of garlic. Looking at the pretty girl with distaste, I then realised with horror, that it was I who had consumed two very garlic-orientated meals since arriving in Slovakia and therefore I was the guilty culprit. I vowed there and then not to eat garlic again whilst on the trip but it was a vow soon broken by the fact that there is very little but garlic on offer in Slovak restaurants. I made another mental note to tell my friend Lenin, who – for some inexplicable beknown only to himself but somehow connected with meditation – does not eat garlic at all[3], never ever to set foot inside Slovak territory.
Even when out of the tunnels, the whole world was black by the time that we reached Spišská Nová Ves, the nearest stop for Levoča where I had chosen to spend the night. I alighted from the train and walked a few hundred metres to the bus station, more typically Eastern European architecture, a crumbling concrete terminal populated by a large family of gypsies. The bus was not long in coming though, and after twenty minutes or so of rumbling through the pitch black countryside we arrived at Levoča bus station, situated right next to a brand-new BILA supermarket.

My guidebooks (both of them) had lovely detailed maps of the old walled town of Levoča, one of the historical, holy and tourist hotspots of Slovakia, but unfortunately neither thought it necessary to show the bus station nor give instructions on how to get from there to the town. Consequently, I asked a passer-by and was directed through an estate of grim apartment blocks and up a very steep hill. After about a kilometre or so (the guidebook had said that the centre of the town was a kilometre from the bus station), I began to wonder and my ankles, still suffering from the morning climb up to Trenčín Castle, began to complain. Still I carried on, up and up, through the last of the apartments to some roads of respectable houses where annoying dogs barked at you from every side. Eventually I spotted the floodlit spire of the town’s main church on an adjacent hillside and knew what I had long suspected, that I was going the wrong way. By the time I eventually reached it, I had covered three kilometres (mostly uphill with a bag on my back), and I was thoroughly exhausted.

I booked in at the Hotel U Leva which was a little posher (and pricier[4]) than my norm, but after the privations of the previous evening and my very long climb, I considered that I deserved a little pampering.

And that pampering had to start with the stomach and so immediately after showering I betook myself to the Biela Pani Restaurant, recommended in the guidebook for having “Authentic Slovak pub food”.[5] The name means ‘White Lady’ and refers to a local legend concerning a local lady who betrayed her city by unlocking the gate to a secret passage and letting in enemy troops, (amongst whom was her lover). She was later beheaded, but her ghost is said to still haunt the town. There was a picture of the treacherous lady on the wall of the establishment but alas, the food – a chicken dish – did not meet the standard set by either the previous evening or lunch. I did not try the soup either this time; I couldn’t cope with the idea of being faced with another bowl of liquid garlic.

After dining I retired to an internet café around the corner which was full of annoying Roma adolescents whom the owner kept threatening to evict for being rowdy and, well… adolescent. I got on with what I had to do however, contacting the gentleman that I was planning to meet in Budapest and getting hold of his address. That done, a tired man, it was off to bed after a very long yet fruitful Slovakian day.

Tired I may have been, sleep I may have craved, but for some reason it would not come. Partially the temperature was to blame. The chatty yet serious receptionist had informed me that the bitterly cold room would soon warm up, (there was underfloor heating apparently), and indeed she even offered to change it, (an offer that a gallant yet unwise English gentleman of course turns down), but it soon became clear that if that room ever did warm up, it would not be quickly. I covered myself with two duvets and sought sleep. When it still would not come I watched BBC News 24 and read some more of Geert Mak’s ‘In Europe’, an eight-hundred page history of Europe in the twentieth century that was my chosen holiday reading. Finally, past 2am, I put on my coat and jumper as well as the two duvets and after that, sleep finally came.

I had chosen to stop in Levoča as it was near to the Tatras Mountains, Slovakia’s most scenic area, because it had a good write-up in the guidebooks as being a well-preserved mediaeval city and because it was utterly provincial. Based on these reasonings, the choice was not a bad one. The Hotel U Leva sat on one of the most beautiful squares I have ever seen, a huge rectangle fronted by 18th century (or earlier) merchants’’ houses on all sides. It is however, more what lies in the square that makes Levoča so special, for in its heart is the glorious Church of St. James, a 15th century Gothic masterpiece with a high altar by the famed Master Pavol of Levoča.

Surrounding the square is an entire old walled city, with most of the walls still intact, with houses, churches, schools and shops. Immediately beyond the walls though, there is little development and at the end of the ancient streets, wide expanses of rolling fields could be viewed, again reinforcing the feeling of being in another age when cities did not spill outside of their walls. I wandered up and down those streets, looking at the old houses and enjoying the slow pace of Levočan life before returning to the square for my obligatory dose of culture.

The church and square in Levoča

Close to the town hall I spied an antiques shop that I entered hoping to come across some old Czechoslovakian banknotes to add to my collection. I was successful in my search; the proprietor had a whole album full, but the prices she asked were high so I only bought three of the cheapest. One of them was a 1960 10 kronur note that I particularly liked. With a picture of the then brand-new Orava Dam on one side and two smiling socialist children on the other, it was a beautiful memento of a simpler age.

As in Trenčín, I was the only visitor to Levoča’s museum, and after an introductory video (in English!), I was given another personalised tour. I decided to ask my guide some questions about the origins of the huge Marian pilgrimage that takes place in the town every July, the culmination of which is a Mass in a church on a nearby hill overlooking the town. Whilst not understanding all of her explanation, (which to be fair, was given in Slovak, a language which I do not speak), I gathered that in the 13th century, when the town was threatened by the Tartars, some of the locals had prayed to the Holy Mother on the hill in question and that She had appeared to them and offered some kind of protection. I then asked about the religious make-up of Levoča’s population today and she informed me that it was virtually all Catholic and that the huge, domed Lutheran church in the square attracts virtually no worshippers these days. “What about the Orthodox though?” I asked. She replied that yes, there were some and that they have a church, but it is one of the houses on the square and from outside it looks just like any other house. As for Muslims, none, and all the Gypsies, (who in Bulgaria tend to be Muslim), are firm Catholics. She then explained with some pride that she herself was in fact “Romany” which I took to mean either Gypsy, (from ‘Roma’, their official name), or Romanian. Judging by her appearance, I suspected the latter.

The walk down to the bus station was much easier than the walk up and much shorter too. I caught a bus to Poprad as that city is the gateway to the Tatras Region and I fancied seeing something of Slovakia’s highest mountains, (the hills around Levoča had been disappointingly, rolling). All in all though, I had enjoyed my sojourn in the town of the White Lady although I must say that there was something too perfect, too showpiece about Levoča for my tastes.

The journey to Poprad was pleasant, past small villages clustered around baroque churches, the landscape dotted with chalet parks where the Slovaks spend their vacations. It was back to reality though when we hit the town itself, another splurge of concrete and industry bequeathed by the communists in a pristine environment, though now showing signs of some equally hideous capitalist investment in the shape of a new business centre and shopping complex.

I alighted from the bus at Poprad only to board it again immediately as it transpired that this was also the bus that continued onwards to my next destination of choice, the alpine spa town of Starý Smokovec.

I’d chosen Starý Smokovec because, as a spa town, I thought there might be a chance of a thermal bath and because it was as far up the Tatras Mountains as one could get without a great deal of time and effort and thus I figured that it should be scenic, and finally because it had a railway running to it and I like trains, particularly the ones that go up and down mountains. On all three fronts, alas, was I disappointed. There were no thermal baths, it wasn’t particularly scenic due partially to a storm several years ago having felled all the trees turning the landscape into a wasteland and also because a huge cloud hovered over the mountains themselves, and because the train, when I did board it, twisted about a bit amongst the storm-ravaged slopes before running on a flat straight track all the way back to Poprad and was nothing to write home about at all. Thus it was that I stayed in the commercialised town of Starý Smokovec for a coffee and a slice of cake and then returned whence I came and caught the first available train onto Košice.

That too turned out to be a mistake, as it was an Intercity Express and travelling on it involved paying a surcharge that alone was higher than the original ticket price, but I didn’t mind too much as the trip was incredibly scenic, down a fine Alpine valley for the entire route and taking the early train meant that I got to see it all before darkness set in.

Košice, with a population comparable to that of Stoke-on-Trent, (but not a football team), is Slovakia’s second city and the gateway to the country’s east. It struck me as strange that the two major population centres should be at opposite ends of the country, over 300km apart with no major city in-between, both only a few miles from the border, but the Slovaks should be thankful I suppose; after all, when it was Czechoslovakia, the capital Prague was a further 300km away, itself nestling close to the German border. All of this perhaps reflects the regions history where foreign powers – Austria, Germany and Russia – have generally held sway. It also reflects something of the traditional ethnic make-up of Slovakia.

When I visited Levoča, it reminded me distinctly of Braşov, a walled city in Romania’s Transylvania where the Sibling and I had stayed during our 2003 trip. Visiting Levoča’s museum, the reasons behind that similarity soon became clear; both towns had been built and populated by German settlers and traders in the Middle Ages. Indeed, reading the history of any of the major towns in Slovakia’s centre and east - Banská Bystrica, Prešov, Žilina to name just a few, and Košice too – all had been founded by non-Slovaks, generally Germans. In times gone by it seems that the Slavs (Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, etc) made up the rural population whilst urban society was dominated by the Germanic Austro-Hungarian elite and, to a lesser extent, the Jews. All of that changed with World War II. The fate of the Jews is well-known, but less publicised are the population transfers that took place after Hitler’s defeat, with millions of ethnic Germans whose families had lived in the region for centuries being moved into Germany itself. Reading about it all in ‘In Europe’ was fascinating and being able to see the results first hand even more so. But above all, I must confess that it made me feel rather sad; mono-ethnic countries are rarely as interesting as multi-ethnic ones and the sight of the beautiful, large, disused synagogues in Trenčín and Košice, heartbreaking.

Košice was a city that I fell in love with the moment that I stepped off the train. Its vast 1960s concrete railway station reminded me of the mammoth terminal at Sofia whilst the park separating it and the old city brought back memories of Stara Zagora. Once in the city’s heart however, a different, lively atmosphere took over: bustling shopping streets lined with elegant 19th century buildings led to the magnificent Hlavné námestie, a lens-shaped square formed by the widening out of the main street Hlavná in which the cathedral of St. Elizabeth, (the easternmost of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals), the Urban Tower, (a 14th century defensive tower), and a gorgeous Austro-Hungarian opera house stand. Those however, could keep for later; first up I needed accommodation, so I went to the helpful TIC where the gentleman behind the desk had to phone up virtually every pension in town before finding one with a vacancy, the Platz which was located by the mediaeval Dominican church. At SK1,500 it was again more than I wanted to pay for a bed, but what choice did I have? I booked it up and then went off in search of food.

The guidebook described Košice’s choice of eateries as “underwhelming” and after half an hour of searching and then a meal in the tatty Malá Fajka, I couldn’t help but concur. The soup was the dreaded garlic držkova again, and the main meal, “Debričin” (chicken stuffed with ham and cheese) bland. Still, it filled a gap and thus refuelled I continued to the station where I bought my ticket onwards to Budapest the next day.[6]

Walking back to the hotel, I stopped to admire Košice’s magnificent synagogue and remember the fate of its congregation. A memorial on the side told of twelve thousand Jews who disappeared from the city – more than twice the entire population of Levoča today. Further on, in Hlavné námestie I saw lights in the windows of the cathedral and faint music coming from within and so I entered, delighted to discover that Mass was in progress. The delight did not last long however, as it was the very end of the service and the Host had already been distributed, but it was uplifting to kneel and pray in that beautiful building whilst the strains of the great organ echoed all about.


When I was woken at eight the next morning I felt groggy and tired and disinclined for sightseeing. Once again I had struggled to sleep for no apparent reason despite going to bed early and very tired. Ok, so the couple energetically copulating in the next room did not help matters, but even so, there was more to it. When I thought back I recalled having the same problem on both my Berlin and Stockholm trips, but none of the travelling that I have undertaken with someone else. Perhaps it was all those plans and schedules whirling around in my head with the knowledge that there was no one else to fall back on? Who knows?

Disinclined to sightsee I might have been, but I was even more disinclined to leave Košice without seeing any of, so I dragged myself out of bed and took in the sights; the wooden church in the grounds of the East Slovak Museum, (I would have loved to have seen inside it although I bet it would have been very dark), the Baroque plague column, the opera house, the Urban Tower, St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral and finally the tiny chapel of St. Michael beside it. Then it was onto the railway station for a snack before boarding the train bound for my next country: Hungary.

Flat, flat, flat. For as far as the eye could see, (which to be fair, with the autumn mist was not that far), it was flat. As soon as we crossed the border the scenery changed from mountain to plain. But there again, why should that be surprising? The Huns, from whom today’s Hungarians are descended, were a nomadic people who swept down into Europe from the Central Asian Steppe in the 5th century and so I suppose it was only natural that they chose the continent’s only steppe land to eventually settle in – what is nowadays referred to as the Great Hungarian Plain. Furthermore, Hungary, like so many countries in Europe, (Bulgaria, Serbia, Germany and Greece to name but four), is a country much smaller than its inhabitants believe it should be. Hun settlement was centred on the plain but it extended elsewhere into the mountains in the north, what is now Romania to the east and the Serbian province of Vojvodina to the south, but following the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War, in the Trianon Treaty of 1920 Hungary lost 68% of its territory and 58% of its population; in other words, it was paired down to the bare minimum, the Great Plain.  And that is why it is therefore not surprising that the landscape changed as soon as we crossed the border; a hundred years ago the country that I had just come from would have been far more Hungarian in character than it is today.[7]

It wasn’t just the landscape however, that altered. As befits a group of former Asiatic nomads, the language is strange, Asian not European and totally unrelated to the Latin, Slavic and Germanic tongues that surround it and totally unintelligible to all outsiders.[8] Different too were the houses and villages. Squat and square, in spaciously laid-out grids, well-kept and wealthy. Gone were the socialist apartment blocks or indeed any signs that this had spent forty-five years as a communist state, (exactly the same amount of time as its apartment and industry littered neighbour to the north). With affluent towns in a fertile landscape, this looked more like it had spent the second half of the 20th century on the western side of the Iron Curtain rather than the eastern one.

Miskolc, one of Hungary’s largest cities and the place where I had to change trains from the indeterminably slow stopper to a very Western European express betrayed more signs of its communist past than the surrounding villages including the hideous concrete extension to the grand Hasburgian railway station that we drew into. I had intended to stop here for a few hours and explore a little of provincial Hungary before hitting her capital, but my lack of sleep the previous night and the fact that the railway station was nowhere near the city centre caused me to give up on the idea and I sojourned for only half an hour before boarding the train to Budapest.

The train may have been quite Western European, but inside not everything had changed from the bad old days. Opposite me, directly under a large ‘No Smoking’ sign, a respectable-looking bearded gentleman lit up and filled the coach with headache-inducing blue smoke. I was outraged but no one else seemed to mind including the conductor and when a striking girl in front of me also sparked up, I knew that the cause was lost. And besides, who was I to feel so righteous? Twenty years ago such behaviour was the norm in the UK; it is us who have decided to change everything, not the Hungarians.

Budapest was not a city that I was particularly bothered about seeing. In fact, I had only grudgingly included it on my itinerary solely because I have a friend there whom I haven’t seen in years and it would be rude to have been in the area and not look him up. But Budapest itself no, I was not bothered about her as we’d blitzed her sights solidly for three days five years ago. We’d enjoyed that bit of our trip; stayed in the apartment of a lady who looked like she had an interesting past, (the one-time mistress of a high-ranking politburo member I had guessed), and found Budapest to be beautiful, interesting and fun. Best of all though were the thermal baths for which she is famous. Back then we’d sampled the 16th century Ottoman Rudas, (which was enchanting, atmospheric and a massive gay hangout), and the opulent yet expensive Gellért, a celebration of the Belle Epoch, the glories of the Hasburg Empire. So no, sightseeing was off the agenda from now on but I still had some time to kill before Dzhilbert finished work and there was one place that we’d missed previously that I was desperate to experience.

The baths that we missed last time were the 16th century Kiraly (closed for renovations) and the Széchenyi which we simply didn’t have time to get to. These latter baths are famous for being Budapest’s largest and for the fact that semi-naked men often play chess in them. Naturally, this was one sight left that was worth seeing.

Since there was no direct metro train and the Széchenyi Baths only lie about a mile from Keleti Station where my train drew in, I decided to walk it. Strolling through the streets of Pest reminded me of the only Hungarian film that I have ever seen, a Bridget Jonesesque rom-com called ‘Csak szex és más semmi’ (or in English, ‘Just Sex and Nothing Else’), in which the protagonist lived in an area identical to the one in which I was now walking through, and in one seen had to flee from a bedroom naked through the window and stand on a ledge several storeys above the ground whilst workmen whistled at her, (alas, no such entertainment on my stroll). And indeed, whilst we’re on the subject, in one scene the same said woman and her best friend visit the Széchenyi Baths where they try to proposition men, (all the more reason for me to visit there too I suppose, from a cultural point of view entirely as I’m sure you understand).

The baths themselves are in the heart of the City Park in a glorious yellow and white baroque building. What strikes one immediately is the size of the complex; after a maze of changing rooms there they are, the baths, dozens upon dozens of them, each one unique and special. Quite what exactly was special about them I couldn’t rightly say mind; each was labelled clearly with a marble slab with some lengthy indecipherable word in Magyar on it, but magnificent they all were, full to the brim with water that made you feel healthier the moment you dipped your toe in it. I tried about five before venturing outside.

It was as if, when I stepped semi-naked into the chilly night air, I had died and gone to bathing heaven; a grand baroque enclosure, half a kilometre in length, teeming with people bathing to their hearts’ content. Steam rose as they played chess by the bath side whilst others warmed their heads with jets of hot water spouting from the fountains and others still lazed in the bubbles of the Jacuzzi. Here too was where the world met; whilst the clientele was predominantly local, there were Germans, Russians, Japanese, Koreans, British, Americans and a whole lot more all taking the waters in Europe’s thermal heart.

I later went to the sauna, the largest that I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience, with space for thirty and just outside it a fountain that spurted ice. Yes indeed, I had died and this is how the gods bathe!

The friend that I had come to see was one Gil Rashidov, a member of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, whom I’d first met years ago at the American University in Blagoevgrad when I was visiting a mutual friend there and who I kept in touch with and stayed with his family in Tutrakan on the Danube several times. When I’d last met him though, he was an enthusiastic, kind-hearted, eager young man who couldn’t wait to see the wider world. Now, five years on, he has lived in America, Germany and Hungary and is very much a man of that wider world. I was looking forward to catching up and keeping my fingers crossed at the same time that that big bad world hadn’t spoilt him.

Gil’s apartment was in a fine 1950s block, (that again reminded me of the abode of the protagonist in Just Sex and Nothing Else’ and had probably been built to house members of Hungary’s socialist elite. Better than that though was its prime location, overlooking the enormous Cathedral of St. Istvan, certainly not a bad thing to look out onto every morning from one’s balcony. Indeed, there was only one problem with that apartment when I visited it: Gil wasn’t there.

Of course, if one considered it in the cold light of reason, then this was hardly surprising. After all, we hadn’t organised things particularly well, or indeed, at all. True, I had an address, but no time to adhere to and I had given him no information beyond the day of arrival. But what choice did I have? It was six-thirty so perhaps he was still at work? I wandered around the neighbourhood for a while but when I got back to the apartment he still hadn’t returned so I went to Burger King for a meal. Upon returning for the second time I discovered that he’d just arrived. It transpired that Gil rarely finished work before seven.

It was good to see Gil again. He hadn’t changed at all and for that I was glad. Time spent in the big city can corrupt the best of men but he was still the same kind-hearted, down-to-earth guy that had invited me to stay in Tutrakan all those years ago and that made me very happy indeed. We went out to a restaurant-cum-bar with straw on the floor for some goulash and then onto an atmospheric pub near to the Great Synagogue. We talked about our travels, life changes and mutual acquaintances, and Gil admired my Ottoman hat, (to be fair to the man, he is ethnically Turkish). The only dampener was that Gil friend – a Bulgarian girl whom he works with – couldn’t come, but I wasn’t so bothered; after all, it was him, not her that I had come to meet. The most memorable moment of the evening came when we were walking to the pub and one of the bridges over the Danube came into view. “It’s strange,” he said, “but when I see that I feel that I am already at home.” And in one respect, so he is, for it’s the same water flowing under that bridge that later will be flowing past his home all those hundreds of kilometres away downstream.

In the pub with Gil

On the final morning of my trip I awoke early in order to breakfast with Gil and his mysterious colleague who had failed to materialise the previous night. At first I wondered just why he was so anxious that I meet her; she was female, was she perchance more than just a friend? But no, that was not it; Elitsa Stefanova, a typically pretty Bulgarian brunette had sojourned in England previously, in no less a city than the beautiful Stoke-on-Trent. So far from home, we discussed the Layla Turkish restaurant, Stoke railway station and the Potteries accent before I bid Dzhilbert and Elitsa adieu as they returned to the office and I headed out for one last little treat.

I’d ummed and arred over what to do with the few hours remaining to me in Budapest before I took the train back to Bratislava, and eventually I decided to revisit my favourite haunt from my first trip to the city; the evocative Rudas Baths on the banks of the River Danube, and so after breakfast I took a pleasant stroll across the Széchenyi Chain bridge and headed into that sixteenth century citadel of steam.

Both the Sibling and I had declared the Rudas to be our favourite baths during the 2003 trip. In fact, they were one of the highlights of the entire jaunt and some of the most atmospheric baths that I have ever entered. Built over four hundred years ago out of solid stone blocks, the octagonal bathhouse, illuminated by scores of tiny skylights, spoke to me of Arabian Nights. The Ottomans had only been in Budapest for less than one hundred and fifty years and today there is little left to betray their presence save for their bathhouses. The Rudas Baths for me are a marker to where the Orient begins for after them the Turkish influence gets stronger and stronger as one travels through Serbia and Bulgaria until one reaches the Sublime Porte itself, Istanbul. As one immerses oneself in the waters, it is easy to feel far closer to Baghdad than Berlin.[9]

Indeed, the only problem with these baths last time that whilst they were atmospheric and Oriental, at the same time, they were also a massive gay hangout. That wasn’t so much of a problem for us then, as the bathers all assumed that the Sibling and I were an item and so left us alone, but this time, alone and in a steamy room, I was a trifle worried.

To be fair though, I needn’t have been. A few guys chatted to me in a friendly manner, but that was all there was to it and by and large their gaydar was picking up my very hetro signals and I was left alone to heat up in the baths, then freeze slowly in the icy water tank repeatedly until my head was spinning and I almost believed that was partaking in one of Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights’ tales.[10]

Clean and invigorated, I made my way back across the Danube to Keleti Station for the journey home. There were several hours to kill before my train departed, so I went into what must be one of the grandest station buffets in the world and in a setting befitting a Poirot novel, sipped coffee and started to write up my memoirs. Then it was onto the train for the trip back to Bratislava.

The journey was uneventful, with no real sights of interest and the light waning fast. Indeed, the only real point of note was an absolutely enormous domed church that I spied across the Danube near to the border with Slovakia. A dip into the guidebook informed me that this was Esztergom Basilica, the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary and the third-largest church in Europe. I made a note that if I were ever in the area again, I would try and have a closer look at it.

And so, as the train rattled back towards my starting point, I had time to reflect on the last few days and the changes that had been wrought on Slovakia – and to a lesser extent, Hungary – over the past five years.

First of all, I was glad that I’d come to have a closer look at the country that I’d seen so fleetingly in 2003. Undoubtedly yes, the Slovakia that I’d examined further was not only friendly, but also beautiful and interesting, and having seen more of it now, that which I’d seen previously seemed to make more sense. The same however, could not be said of Budapest, as this trip had not added much to my knowledge of that city, but as I’ve said before that was not the point. My aim in revisiting Budapest was to make contact with Gil and in that respect I had been successful. The fact that I had enjoyed two fabulous thermal baths on top and been reminded of a bad rom-com that I’d once seen was merely icing on the cake.

As for the changes, well, Slovakia had undergone a revolution and what had previously seemed to be the poor sister of the Czech republic, a provincial backwater with economic problems, now seemed to be forging ahead as an independent nation with its own distinctive identity and a burgeoning economy. Was this all due to the EU? Largely I believe so, for the EU enables small nation states like Slovakia and Ireland to prosper in a safe environment, without relying on the patronage of their larger neighbours, but some credit must also go to the Slovaks themselves for their bravery in embracing change and creating their own destiny. Hungary on the other hand, seems to have been a different story; she seems to have moved on little since 2003 and her citizens appeared to me to be a little more unsure of the New European Order. Time of course, shall tell if I am right in my evaluations.

Back in Bratislava it was dark as the day – and indeed the whole trip – drew to its close. I thought that my adventures too had reached their end, but before I left I was treated to one last reminder of Eastern Europe. Laden down with backpack, the light minimal and my mind on finding the right bus stop, I never noticed the hole in the paving and was sent flying across the pavement. As one who had once written an article on the poor quality of post-communist paving, my grazed knee and elbows told me as I travelled home that whilst much has changed in Slovakia, some things have definitely remained the same.

Written Smallthorne, UK, May 2009
Copyright © 2009, Matthew E. Pointon

[1] And why is he called Lenin? Because that’s who he looks like, that’s why.
[2] For details see the travelogue ‘Travels at the Beginning of 2007’.
[3] In Lenin’s defence, he has spent a considerable amount of time in the Far East, and the Far East does things to a man’s sanity.
[4] SLK 1400.
[5] The Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics, 7th Edition (2006), p.559
[6] For some inexplicable reason, a return was far cheaper than a single. The same was also true when I travelled from Budapest to Bratislava a day later.
[7] In fact today the Hungarians are Slovakia’s single-largest minority, being some 10.7% of the population according to my guidebook.
[8] Except perhaps the Finns and Estonians whose tongues are purportedly related although quite distantly.
[9] I’ve long thought that it would be nice to do a tour of the lands of the former Ottoman Empire which would start by flying into Budapest and bathing in the Rudas as a ritual before setting off.
[10] Except alas, it was the genie rather than Princess Jasmine in the bath beside me.

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