16.12.2016 - 18.12.2016 1 °C
We checked out of our Viennese flat while the plumbers were doing something to the shower, and said farewell to German Ludwig and Taiwainese-Australian Yu Chan, with strict instructions to visit Yu Chan's brother at his coffee shop in Melbourne some day.
We trundled along to a cafe near the train station to indulge in some pre-international-travel lunch. I used my favourite German word (apfelsahft) and obviously pronounced it with some resemblance to the real deal, because the woman nodded and lo and behold, brought me a cup of apple juice. Nailed it. The menu was a tad limited - it was a three course meal for less than ten euro, or it was nothing. Three course meal, coming right up! Dessert was jam-filled doughnuts - and the jam was apricot, total win. I feel that apricot flavoured things are under-represented in the world, and Austria was doing its bit to balance things out.
We waddled onto the train (which departed precisely on time - maybe it's Austrian efficiency we're supposed to talk about?) and an hour later, we waddled off again, this time in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.
From the moment we walked out of the train station, I knew I was going to like this place. It had none of the glamour of Vienna, but something about it just worked for me. Maybe I was a Slovak in a past life. Who knows.
We sussed the tram system pretty quickly and got ourselves out to Nove Mesto and settled into our flat, which was big and clean and fully-equipped and was costing us about $30AUD per night. We headed straight for the supermarket, had an early dinner and then set off to see the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir perform. Simon had been overcome with guilt at our lack of cultural experiences in Vienna, the centre of the classical music universe, and was determined to make up for it. So there we were, in the beautiful concert hall, trying to look as if we belonged there. The hall had a simplistic beauty about it - stunning, but not intimidatingly grand.
The first item was a choral work, not my cup of tea but I enjoyed watching the orchestra do their thing, and found one double bass player with a most unorthodox bowing technique. Next we dispatched with the choir and brought in the grand piano - and I simply could not watch the pianist. He made such grotesque facial expressions and his body movements were so distracting that I felt I would dissolve into a fit of giggles if I stayed focused on him. At what point does somebody need to tell him that's he's being a nong? I'm sure Beethoven's artistic directions did not include the outrageous gesticulations that were occurring on stage... But once I removed the visual element of the performance by watching the cellists, it was all rather impressive. And Greg Farmer's doppelganger played first violin, so it was nice to see a familiar face up there on stage.
As the first half was coming to a close, It Happened. The moment I had feared had arrived. There was A Tickle In My Throat, and I knew that the cough that was coming was not a simple clear-your-throat-and-it'll-be-gone situation, it was a coughing crisis. So I did the unthinkable and walked out, as stealthily as possible, under the disapproving glares of the back ten rows of the audience, so that I could have my coughing fit in the safety of the foyer. Gah.
On the plus side, I discovered that there were speakers in the foyer so I was able to listen to the end of the first half in the foyer, which was nearly as magnificent as the concert hall itself.
After intermission, I'm sure a few people thought it strange that I remained in the foyer after the final call to be seated, but there I was comfortable and able to enjoy the Saint-Saens piece (you would know it as the final song from Babe) without worrying that my cough would affect anyone else. So - Simon got his Culture in the end. 11 euro well spent.
On Saturday morning we headed back into town and joined a walking tour with a focus on the role of communism in Slovakia. This was a wonderful decision on our part - it was quite a small group (maybe ten or so people), and what interesting people they were! It's not often you meet someone who works in the Australian Embassy in Oman...
Anyway the tour itself was brilliant. I felt like some puzzle pieces had come together in terms of understanding life in Europe post-WW2. The Slovak-Soviet relationship was far from black and white - which I suppose was a reminder that few things in life can ever be categorically considered 'good' or 'bad'. The Soviets are acknowledged in their role as liberators AND oppressors in Slovak history, with neither role taking away from the other. We learned that much of the old city of Bratislava was destroyed not during the war, but during the 'modernisation' that came after the war. For example, there was a monument to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and it was located on the former site of a synagogue. The synagogue was not destroyed by the Nazis - but was demolished to make way for a new highway after the war. Go figure.
We marvelled at the hazy views of the Danube from Bratislava Castle, averted our eyes from the hideous Slovak Radio building and chuckled at the communist feat of engineering that had created a public park where the seats were unusable and the sound of the fountain drowned out any hopes of conversation.
After the tour, we climbed way too many stairs to get to the Slavin war memorial, and then found our way downhill to a restaurant that was warm and welcoming. Our young waitress could not have been more helpful, and we had an awesome Slovak meal. You may be surprised to learn that Christmas cabbage soup (vianocna kapustnica) is absolutely delicious, but you will probably not be surprised to know that I also enjoyed my potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon. Kinda tasted like the best macaroni cheese ever in the history of macaroni cheese. We finished off with sour cherry strudel and some of the nicest vanilla icecream I've ever had, before rolling our way through yet another Christmas market on our way back to the tram stop.
For our next trick, we crossed off a few icons of Bratislava. We started at the 'blue church' (Church of St Elisabeth) and then waltzed along the Danube River, before waltzing right across it. From there, we headed into the Old Town and enjoyed soaking up the vibe of the place. Cobblestones, beautiful buildings, Christmas markets, random statues of men peeping out of manholes - you get the idea. It was lovely - but it was cold. The rain that had been forecast never eventuated, but gee willikins it was cold.
We ate lunch by going to the stall with the longest queue of locals, and enjoyed some sort of fried-potato-with-spices-and-cheese heavenly concoction. And I thought it was supposed to be the Irish that were the potato masters! The only downside to market food is that your hands get cold, so to remedy the situation, we headed for the Slovak National Gallery, which was a) free and b) heated. As a bonus, it also had c) information in English. We perused the WW2-era art until we had regained feeling in our extremities, then trammed it back home to warm up (again) with some cards (turned out Huf Patience was not Simon's strong suit) and now we're wondering if we will ever feel hungry again. There is a reputable pizza place just down the road, and it might just be worth braving the cold for...