Two March 2004 Walks Plus a Book Review:  

1. Donauinsel (Vienna, Austria)  

2. Bratislava (Slovakia)


In March of 2004, I was sent from the US to Vienna on business. The day of my arrival I did something to help me stay awake all day, I took a long walk in what would be the only sunny day that week. I walked about half of the island in the Danube fittingly called the Donauinsel. By the time I returned to the hotel it was cloudy. That walk is documented at this link

The next four days I spent working, watching it get light and dark from an office building, watching it rain, eating out, and wrestling the first several night with jet-lag's surprise wake-up periods during the night.  During those periods I read a book by Paulo Coelho that I will review at this link

All that week I had hoped to get Friday afternoon off. Friday morning was not rainy, simply cloudy, so I redoubled my efforts to get work done and some time off. Why?

Because someone I chatted with on the way to Vienna, a woman named Tatiana, had told me that her former home town of Bratislava was worth seeing. It was not Vienna, she said, neither was it Prague or Budapest, but it was a capital city with its own charms, its own historical sights and highlights, and most of all, for her family, it was the safe and comfortable place they called home.

So, since the group I was a part of worked hard all week and seemed to have its ducks in a row by early Friday afternoon, later on that Friday afternoon I found myself at the Wiener Sudbahnhof (Vienna South train station) just as a train pulled away for Bratislava.

Upon asking the remarkably helpful ticket clerk which station I should go to (there are two, with different trains on different schedules) to just do a walkabout of Bratislava for a few hours, he said I definitely wanted the main station. That was the one I just missed. So I sat, read a book, ate train-sation sandwiches, and walked about for an hour and a half.

The round trip ticket was only 14 Euros, what a steal! By the time I could get on the train, wet snow was falling. Turns out snow fell all the rest of that evening (and all night and until I left for home the next day -- Vienna was a Winter Wonderland as my plane took off). It was obviously Spring !


But, back to the train.  The first thing I realized as we pulled out of Vienna is that we were on a track taking us over a bridge I had walked under my first day in Vienna: in the distance are the buildings I spent a week working in, the one to the right of the needle structure is the one I had just left a few hours before:

Once in Bratislava, as I walked out of the train station I was already convinced that this would be a friendly place. Not only because of my informant Tatiana, previously referred to, but also because two men I sat by on the train told me where to go to see good views of the city.

As soon as I got out of the train station. . .

I went the wrong way. A young grandfather with two little grandsons whom he was taking to see trains, crossed my path. He spoke good English, he was proud to inform me that he had been to Canada and the US on business. He straightened out my directions and said if I went with him and the boys to see the trains, he would afterward give me an auto tour of the city.

Given that it was quickly getting dark, I told him that my way of getting to know a city for the first time was to walk it until my feet were ready to give out. He said he would be glad to save my feet some pain, but I should do what I wanted to do if that is what I really wanted to do.  He was not convinced.  Strangely enough, walking in wet snow at dusk was just what I wanted to do.

Much later I was in a panic because I had lost my way back to the train station. I asked three persons for directions and two went out of their way to help me with directions. The third, an older woman, obviously was not pleased by being approached by a disheveled old man (that would be me after walking for hours in the snow) speaking nonsense (I tried an English-German language mix) to her on a dark street. I was probably also frightening because my glasses were completely opaque with melting snow. She made a defensive gesture and walked away. So although most locals are friendly to a fault, some have good sense.

I headed as quick as I could up a hillside (via an exhausting series of steps)

to get a view of the city from a memorial of some sort.

Upon arrival, I saw it was a World War II memorial, with many, many graves with the date 1945

(shortly after I was born) so it must have been the war of liberation that was depicted in the dramatic statuary.

Memorials to World War II always make me feel a darkness I do not like. Good reminder that war is hell. Also good reminder that many, many died to liberate this place from a very brutal and oppressive regime.

Snow was beginning to stick in places not touching the ground:

The next photo was taken later as I headed into town, but fits under this theme of snow starting to stick:

From the memorial there were some good views of the city, including a view of a building that looked like an ark:

Traffic and construction, the banes of (prospering) modern cities, were alive and well:

Darkness was approaching rapidly at this point:

I followed the ridge line from there, a ridge slowly curving toward the Bratislava Castle, and found myself in a very nice neighborhood with at least one, and I suspect more, embassies.

I came upon the US embassy, and was asked by a guard not to take a photo of it when he saw me getting ready to do so. It was like a miniature White House on a hilltop. Its stark whiteness, made rather evident by floodlights, was a stark contrast to its non-white neighbors. But it was rivaled by several other houses on the same street in terms of size and attractiveness.

But there were good views from that same street.  Finally I saw the Bratislava castle:

 Leaning against a tree, I was able to use my zoom for a closer look (it was cold, and my hands were not steady enough without that tree for an elbow prop):

At one point I could see both the castle and a large church in the center of the city that was also floodlit:

I took a street to the left after this, to go into downtown. Other parts of the city I that visited along the way seemed rather full with human life. Many people on the street despite the weather. Nowhere did I feel at all unsafe.

Where I walked, very old residences existed alongside new, modern looking apartment buildings, but most all residential and business buildings I saw were quite tasteful. Of course I can only speak for where I walked and looked, which is a tiny piece of what is really quite a large city of a half million people.

I liked this apartment building:

It was completely dark when I walked toward the city below. The street I selected wasn't really a street, it was so steep that in places there were stairs. So I walked very carefully because the stone steps were uneven in places, and slick with melting snow.

Close to downtown, I liked this antiquarian's shop window:

In the city I took photos of that church, it was set on the city wall:

Sorry about the angle:

On the way to the church, its floodlighs dramatized the falling snow:

At the church, I was entering the center of the city:

This was the scene as I continued on the street beside the church headed into town, and here are a few snippets of the city center without further comment (but with melting snow on the lens):

After downtown I walked back to the train station, there was no time to see the castle this trip.  So, I passed the town casino and some modern office buildings before passing by a real chateau:

From the chateau I headed back uphill to catch my train, sure of my general direction, but not quite sure of the details - if I were one street off, I would walk forever uphill. So that is when I asked several persons for directions as mentioned above. The last man I asked, when I was once more unsure of myself, said I had only 300 meters to go. Great! But I only had 20 minutes to go! So imagine my surprise to plunk into my seat five minutes before departure.

Some say they can tell I am an American.  But how?  This is Slovakian Coca Cola Light!

From the train, the neighboring train and its exterior decor seemed an appropriate parting shot:

So, I liked my visit to Bratislava. I want to come back and spend more time when it is a little warmer and drier. But maybe seeing it in this weather allowed me to see it as the natives experience it in Winter and Spring. There is always a different flavor to a city in winter. And that flavor can be quite romantic.

So what do Slovakians look like? They looked like people: all ages and sizes. To my chagrin, few I saw out that evening were as rotund (OK, fat) as I. But then, fat people would have been on their couches in their houses watching TVand eating snacks, right? The women I saw? The usual assortment of hair colors was evident: blondes, redheads (fiery red is in for some, it seems, and was quite fetching), and many brunettes (I would call their hair black actually, but would not feel right calling them 'blackheads'). [A joke in English]. Oh, and bald is in for some men.

Downtown, I saw many, many young people. I may have been the oldest person on the street. This means I am young at heart? Probably it means I am not as wise as Slovakians my age, who do not go for long walks on wet and snowy evenings.

The young of most species tend to be cute (there are exceptions I know), but I was impressed by just how cute Bratislava's young ladies were. And those with boyfriends hanging off them were well matched, generally. That is a good sign. To me it means the young are optimistic. Their happy chatter and laughter also gave me that impression.

They seem to smoke a lot and drink beer a lot. That is less of a good sign, but as the man on the train that was telling me about the local state of the economy and culture observed: kids smoke, but the number of people that continue to smoke through their twenties is falling off compared to just a few years ago.

He proudly pointed out the new automobile assembly plants as we entered Bratislava's outer suburbs. That is also a good sign. Where the economy grows there is hope.

So, did I see anyone even resembling my momentary friend Tatia who inspired this wet and cold walk? No. Was I disappointed? No. I went to experience a city and I did. I liked the experience, the feeling I had just being there.

Was the city as ornate as some others in Europe, like the Paris I visit very often or the Vienna I just spent a week in? No. But even obscured in snow and darkness it was a healthy, living place. Why do I have that impression? Because of construction. There seemed to be a lot of construction at all levels (larger buildings going up in the city, sure, but a surprising number of homes were obviously undergoing serious interior remodeling). That reflects a confident people.

People also seemed to be having fun. On one dark street I saw a woman and her daughter sneaking from car to car and ducking behind them. Then when they caught up with a man and a dog they were obviously following, they jumped up behind him and yelled what must have been 'surprise!' Then hugs and kisses happened and they all continued walking the dog together. A touching scene I thought, whatever it meant to the participants, it was a little sliver of fun being shared by a large man looking on from a short distance (me).

Next time I go to Slovakia it will be already be a part of the European Union. That begins to happen this May! How times are changing! As one of my informants observed, the countries of the region couldn't wait to dissolve their unions when the old Communist regime fell apart, and declare their own sovereignty. But now they can't wait to get into the new union and give up some of that same highly prized sovereignty. He said there were mixed feelings over this pending joining of the European Union.

In my opinion, in the long run it will be good for all. It will prevent wars, largely by creating solid economic interdependencies. It is still very hard for me to believe that modern Europe twice broke down into great spasms of violence. But as my mother can tell you from her experience in the Netherlands under Hitler's regime, it happened, and it was unbelievably bad. So, a united states of Europe seems like a very good thing in the long run even though there may be some pain in making the adjustments in the short term.

And thus ended my short-lived Slovakian adventure. Three hours and about 8 minutes of it. This map says I covered very little of the city.  

But that's OK, I will be back.

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