We press on further east along the Danube, out of Vienna towards Budapest. Lisa and I decide to make a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Driving into Bratislava on a day of grey misty skies, the city’s streets hold few pedestrians. The outskirts of the city appear to display the workers’ apartment blocks of communist cities. As you drive in closer to the city center, you find the older buildings that clearly predate the communist takeover of the country in 1948. The Bridge of the Slovak nationalist uprising spans the Danube and holds a UFO-like restaurant at its top.
We drive in to get as close as possible to the square that the guidebook mentions.
We are in the hunt for a place to get out of the car and eat our sandwiches. Perhaps even a place that would let us eat at their tables while we order some coffees. As anyone with a “larger” family knows (I’m not sure where the threshold is to meet the larger family definition) we are no strangers to opening up the trunk and handcrafting some PB&J’s in the parking lot. Our trip is meant to invest time with family, to further all of our educations and to somehow glorify God in time together. We are attempting to keep the trip reasonably priced and eat out sparingly. Somehow gelato places still manage to sneak under the radar, similar to how the broken cookie pieces left on the plate contain no calories. Of course, we watch the monthly food budget and try to keep a decent average nightly lodging cost.
I pull up to a parking lot with a ticket machine in use, likely to raise the lowered barrier. I roll my window down and lean out to read the Slovak signage and see if I can park here. A man steps up to my window from behind us, and says with passable English, “ What are you doing here?” I briefly explain our hopes to park. He tells me it’s for residents only, smiles and says, “You leave now.” It is one of those interactions where you can tell the connotation is not quite conveyed from the translation of one language to another. He doesn’t appear menacing. We laugh and I tell him, “I leave now.” Time to find another spot.
The main square is a short walk in the rain. Playful sculptures carry the tongue-in-cheek humor of the Slovaks.
We head down the side streets clamoring to get a ways from the main square and hoping to escape tourist prices and the rain. We find a delightful side street and a small warren of still narrower streets in this pedestrian zone. This little alley holds the tiny office of a national embassy and a cafe at the end among the cobblestones.
We discover a warm oasis back here of espresso and wi-fi. A couple is already enjoying the cave-like atmosphere of the ten-seat joint. Our kids are entertained by a flat-screen TV with an American nature documentary and a huge coffee table book jaunts through the headlines of the last 150 years.
The kids enjoy the ambiance and the break from the car but the break is over too soon. In the passageway outside, we wait for the girls after the typical family pit stop. A tall man in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots lopes towards us. He looks to be accompanied by a small bear. Of course, it’s not a bear but a huge dog—unleashed and slowly picking his way along. The boys and I strike up a conversation with the man who turns out to be an American. His name is Greg and it turns out the dog, Alex, is a Moscow Watchdog. Bred by the Soviets, these dogs are roughly the size of a St Bernard but without the drool. Alex is a gentle giant. He is soon lying on his side and covered in our four kids petting him. Hearing Greg’s English and his story was quite the serendipitous encounter! He claims Texas, just like Lisa, and is married to a woman who hails from Slovakia. His life has been a fascinating mix of military and political service and international business exploits. Like me, Greg has also fought cancer. Suddenly, Bratislava has come alive to us. I don’t think we’d heard one native English speaker in Bratislava before Greg. As we chat, a Slovak man comes up and is also arrested by the sight of Greg and Alex. The man is eager to try out his English skills. Greg obliges him and the man even asks if Greg is from Texas. I continue to be surprised how everyone in Europe seems quite familiar with Texas.
[sample shot of a Moscow Watchdog]
As we finish up the conversation, Greg is gracious to walk us down the road, make some recommendations on what to see in the area and even brave the rain alongside our family. Alex the dog attracts a lot of attention, and so does the cowboy hat. I start wishing I had one with me. The kids are talking all about our dog Samwise and how much they miss him. They can’t stop running their hands down Alex’s fur. I regret that I was so surprised by this whole chat that I forgot to get a picture of Greg and Alex.
–update– Greg was kind enough to send me a shot of him and Alex.
Greg told us about the Primate’s Palace, or “Pink Palace,” that was right around the corner. He informs us this was the place where the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II and Napoleon signed the peace treaty following the 1805 Russo-Austrian army’s defeat at Austerlitz that I mentioned in the last post. We actually find the pink palace near the old square on our way back in the rain towards our car.
[internet shot since we were running by in the rain…]
Greg had explained how to get out of town and his directions are dead-on to the Roman ruins that we find along the river on our way east. For another welcome chance to stretch our legs, we climb all over the ancient, overgrown ruins of this Roman camp. This was just a temporary Roman military camp along the river, and a part of their border defense system. “Temporary” to the Romans meant this camp was in continual use for at least 200 years. Some of the stone foundations remain as does the core hole of a well.
Arriving into Budapest, our hotel is right in the city again, and across the street from a nightclub. The streets are so narrow here that everyone parks on the sidewalk. I have to make an 87-point turn just to get the car down the ramp into the underground parking lot. We put down a deposit to get the remote control to open up the hotel parking lot barrier. And a deposit for the internet access device. And a deposit for the second key. I skip the deposit for the iron and ironing board. The whole clan is thrilled to find two bathrooms in the apartment. We even have a balcony and a washing machine. There is a tree climbing up next to our balcony. The tree holds what looks to be a swim cap and a discarded swim suit. Our guess is they were blown off someone’s drying rack from the balcony upstairs. Either that, or the Hungarians are quite interesting…
Dryers seem optional over here and we are always provided a portable drying rack in our apartments. Our room is on the third floor and with a real metal key for the lock. I put the key in the keyhole and it goes all the way through and out the other side of the lock. It gets stuck and I am unable to pull it back out. After some shaking and jimmying and maybe a bit of dancing, I am able to persuade the key back out. Turns out, you have to put the key in just the right amount—not too far and not too shallow. The key fits the lock either way, but will not open the lock unless you have the key turned the right direction before you put it in the lock! We cannot wait to explore the city!