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Tails From the Vienna Woods

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Slovakia

Dobré trhy

Buried within the seemingly endless streams of, “Christmas Markets You MUST Visit” and practical? advice such as, “Tips for Navigating Christmas Markets” running across my news feeds last week was a quiet little notice for something called, Bratislava Good Market.

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When a Weekend Just Comes Together

Two weekends ago our day outing fell short of expectations by a mile. The following weekend’s outings exceeded expectations by a mile, and then some.

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Saturday in Slovakia: Trenčín.

Last weekend our destination of choice for interesting sights (and great food, of course) was Trenčín, a moderate-sized town in the northwest of Slovakia and the northernmost Roman city in modern Slovakia.

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Modranské Vinobranie!

A weekend outing with the promise of pretty castles or pleasant scenery is to us what sleeping in or Sunday brunch is to others. Bonus points if there is a festival in a village we haven’t visited, for that brings with it the promise of good food and wine, as well. Last weekend the wine village of Modra, Slovakia offered all of it!

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Miro at Danubiana

After our Barcelona visit and an art group at the Albertina in the spring, we are self-declared Joan Miro fans. Understandably, then we were excited to note the opening a couple of weeks ago of a Miro exhibit at one of our favorite museums, the Danubiana Meulensteen, just across the border in Slovakia. On a steamy Central European summer day, a cool museum escape was just what we needed.

Miro’s Palma de Mallorca studio, recreated.

On loan from the family were several dozen pieces. We just like the art, and hope you do, as well.

A Quiet Weekend

My news feeds were bursting with ideas to fill our weekend, but since Clayton Theodore generously allowed us to sleep in until the late hour of 0600 on Saturday, “Do Nothing” seemed to be our preferred plan. That worked for about an hour, after which time I declared war on the boredom and suggested we go to Bratislava and eat French food for lunch.
In Bratislava we dropped in at the regular Saturday market and then wandered about streets in the city along which we have never been. There is something about these old streets and even older homes…

Nitra, "The Mother of All Slovak Cities"

Saturday found us as empty nesters for the day, with Anna Grace off running and jumping at a T&F invitational in Munich. Ordinarily we would attend to cheer on the Knights, but the forecast for Bavaria called for rain, rain, and more rain, so we pointed the wagon toward sunny and warm Slovakia whilst cheering on the team via SMS. Call us fair weather parents.
Nitra, Slovakia was our destination, hailed as the, “Mother of all Slovakian Cities,” as its castle sits atop ruins that date to the Bronze Age. Really. In Imperial times, the Palffy family served as the Charges d’affaires, and did so splendidly.  We explored the old, the really old, and the awesome socialist architecture. 

As it depressingly goes in our travels around Central and Eastern Europe, too, too, many synagogues serve only as museums for the lives that once were. Little known, but Slovakians were the first power to start the deportation of Jewish persons in pursuit of, “The Final Solution.”

It also being a university town, there is a vibe from the students that is noticeable, and we were rather taken by surprise with our lunch of handmade fettuccine with grilled octopus in red wine sauce at a trattoria on the square, instead of the expected Slovak fare. 
Who doesn’t love socialist architecture in the sunshine?

A French style cafe beckoned us, but we could not oblige before our uphill ascent to the castle.

A private tour had arrived at the castle at the same time, and the cathedral lights were turned on for them (and, serendipitously, for us!)

A most unusual rendering of The Last Supper.

Pope John Paul II visited Nitra in 1995, and his visit is well-commemorated.

On our descent from the castle hill, one of two wedding parties paused for photos. Congratulations to the happy couple!

Another lovely day trip.

Bratislava, The Miscellanae.

As mentioned, we visit Bratislava often. We also visit the Czech Republic rather often, as well, and have toyed with the crazy notion of purchasing a holiday home in Moravia–a little project for me, if you will.  But then on Saturday’s tour we stopped to visit a cemetery, adjacent to which was this house. I fell in love. A renovation nightmare, to be sure, but just think of the potential…

The cemetery was beautiful; and unusual in that Jews and Christians are buried together. The cemetery was thankfully spared damage during the 1930s.

Tony and our guide, probably discussing old cars or that Tony thinks I’m crazy for falling in love with that house.

I see photos like this on Pinterest all the time. Could be Paris. Could be Vienna. Could be Prague or Budapest. It’s Bratislava, of course. 
 
Trying a Thai restaurant in the Stare Mesto for lunch. We’ll definitely return. The Larb Gai (chili-lime ground chicken salad) was, to quote Tony, “As amazing as (mine).”
I went with Pad Thai. Not quite as flavorful as our preferred place in Vienna, but still quite remarkable.

A next-to-final stop. Tesco is almost always last, since we almost always need dinner provisions and Austria is either closed (if it’s Sunday) or closing (the grocery sidewalks roll up around 1800, if not earlier on Saturdays). Such a drag.  Anyhow…a much loved cafe and bookstore, where I picked up two new manuals for my laboratory kitchen. 

Bratislava Before "The Changes"

We like Bratislava for many reasons. The Slovakian capital is but a mere hours’ drive away; dropping in to visit a market or festival or to see a new museum exhibit, followed by a delicious lunch and usually a Tesco stop for groceries, always makes for a grand day outing.
Saturday found us in the city for an entirely new reason, a private tour of (former) Socialist Bratislava. We both enjoy the modern history of Central Europe and secretly wish we could go back in time to live in Vienna during the Cold War years, so this outing was exciting for us!
Our transportation? A (mostly restored) 1970’s Skoda, of course!  The petrol gauge did not work, and the seat belt was only for show. Most important, though, was that Tony could fit in the car.
Our guide was a primary school student when “The Changes” occurred, and is passionate about keeping this part of Slovakian history alive. Though his father, an educated man, was permitted to travel to the West every once in a while, during the Cold War his family was moved from the capital to a village in the central part of the country, the reason being, of course, to dilute populations of “the intelligentsia.”  
One of our stops along the tour was the Slovakian President’s residence, a former Archbishop Summer Palace leftover from the Empire that became a hospital until the 1930s. When Czechoslovakia dissolved, the new Slovak government needed some real estate from which to manage affairs.
Saturday was Slovak Election Day. Our guide was optimistic that, for the first time since The Changes, the country might elect a leader who was not once a member of the former Communist Party, believe it or not. Tony and I mused later over lunch that our own country seems poised to nominate either a national security risk and indictable criminal or a pompous, xenophobic businessman with an enormous lack of self-awareness to “lead” our country, and we wished the Slovaks well. 
Across the street from the Palace, the renamed, Freedom Square. Our guide had a photo book of the “before” and “after.” 

Turning to a subject near and dear to me, public housing. This building was the very first built (circa 1956) and served as the construction model for the whole of Czechoslovakia.

The requisite socialist art was in place, along with two flag posts (the “V” shaped object to the right of the doors), to display both the Russian and Czechoslovak flags, naturally.

“Wow” was our response at the sight of this architectural beauty, the Slovak National Radio home. Our guide said that counseling is offered to persons who become depressed working there. Perhaps he was joking?

All proper socialist cities have monuments to the Russian soldiers who gave their lives “liberating” various cities during WWII. Bratislava has Slavin Memorial, perched high atop the city.
The green space leading to the memorial is the cemetery housing the remains of more than 6.000 Russian soldiers.
There were many people at the memorial; our guide said the chief reason is for the views.
Like many former Eastern Bloc capitals, Bratislava has a Diplomatic Quarter and even a Diplomat Hotel. The 1970’s construction swept us away. 
Many famous world leaders have stayed in the hotel. (On an aside, during the Slovakian Summit 2005, at which Bush and Putin met, CNN used a map of Slovenia (with a star on Ljubljana, the capital city) to depict the meeting. Our guide lamented, “We never got our 15 minutes of fame.”)  It is possible for any diplomats to stay in the hotel now.  Oh, the temptation to spend a night…
At this point in the tour we paused for snacks. By now our guide had long readjusted the itinerary, impressed that as Americans we knew so much about Slovakia (not the first time we’ve been so politely labeled as anomalies), and prefaced the offer of Kofola with, “You’ve probably already tried this…”
Kofola was the “anti Coca-Cola” during the Cold War, and is still popular across Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We like the soda, the modern citrus-flavored being our favorite.  
A little more to Tony’s liking, though, was the home-brewed Slivovitz, the 52 proof national brandy. Na zdravie!
From Bratislava proper we then headed toward the Slovak-Austrian border, touring the famous panelaks of Petrazalka along our route. Our guide commented that even today, the differences between Austria and Slovakia are obvious: the Austria border road is paved; the grass is maintained; and the fact that the road is elevated all represent the higher standard of living that Austria enjoys.
1950 border crossing. 
Remnants of that same crossing.
The final stop on the tour was to view Bunker BS-8 that sits along the border, one of many originally built in response to Hitler’s rise to power. The rest, of course, is history. The elderly Slovak gentleman who maintains the site was not in attendance, so we were unable to peek inside. Perhaps another time.
Once upon a time, standing on the border would have been near impossible. Who knows what’s blowin’ in the winds…

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