Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bratislava

Hello again! My first stop in Bratislava was to get to the hostel where I’d booked 2 nights.  It took a while to find the place, and when I finally did I wasn’t all too impressed.  The one I booked was rated Number 1 in Bratislava, so that’s not saying much!  The hostel was located in a pretty dodgy area (later I found out that it was pretty much prostitute lane), and not quite in the city center as had been advertised.  I was feeling a bit nauseous from the strong smell of urine outside my room, and the crumbs on the floor and lack of fresh air didn’t help either.  Sooo, long story short, I decided to pamper myself a bit and found a lovely hotel (the "Skaritz"), right in the center of the old town on the main street.  


This place was gorgeous, and I felt like  a  queen to have my own real super-soft bed, my own bathroom, and my own living space!  It’s amazing what a week living in hostels can make you appreciate… I was exhausted and nothing felt better than some peace and quiet in my tranquil room and a refreshing shower. 

After rejuvenating and getting some relaxation in, I took a stroll around the old town, loving every minute of it!  The pedestrian-only cobblestone streets and baroque architecture give the city a small, quaint atmosphere, and  lining the streets were outdoor restaurants and bars with a bustling crowd.  To make up for the larger than budgeted expense of the hotel, I went to the grocery store and picked up some fruits, veggies, and croissants for a cheap dinner in my room.








After a night of uninterrupted sleep it was easy to wake up in the morning and find my way to the starting point of yet another bike tour. For a while it was just going to be myself and the two guides because a group from the Hague (holland) didn’t show, but they finally arrived about a half hour late, so at least we had a full group!  I was a bit disappointed since it was a group of senior citizens, however, they turned out to be a lovely and entertaining group.  One thing I found amusing was that they definitely knew the history of Slovakia better than the guides who were 20-21ish, since they’d lived through a lot of the cold war / iron curtain events.  They probably taught the guides more than the guides taught us!






It was nice to get some exercise again and get outside the city walls.  We rode all the way to Devin castle, had some coffee /snacks, and then took a boat back to the starting point.  Near the castle there’s a memorial to remember all the Slovaks who tried to escape from the communist rule in the east to the west.  This spot is actually where at least 400 civilians where shot dead by their own government while they tried to cross the Danube to escape (that's Austria across the river).


The UFO observation deck - apparently the #2 thing to see in Bratislava.

After the tour I said farewell to my senior friends and headed back to my hotel.  On the way I bumped into another backpacking girl, about the same age as me, who was trying to find the hostel that I’d originally planned to stay at!  So we chatted for a bit – she’s from England – and I led her to the hostel and we made plans to meet up for dinner later that evening.  It was nice knowing I’d have someone to eat and walk around with later in the day.


Once back at my hotel, I took a quick shower and headed to this unique ayurvedic spa about 2 mintues away for an abhyangam massage and shirodhara treatment (huh??? yes, my thoughts indeed).  I didn’t really know what I was in for, but this was listed as the number 1 thing to do on tripadvisor.com in Bratislava, so I figured why not?  The massage was amazing, focusing on the major meeting points of energy in the body.  The following head treatment seriously took me into another dimension!!  Basically for about 45 minutes  the woman poured hot oil onto my forehead (the “third eye”) and I definitely found myself in a dream-like state, drifting in and out of consciousness during the treatment.  So weird!  But afterwards I felt so refreshed, calm, and rejuvenated – I sat in the “relaxation room” with some tea afterwards for about a half hour just to come back to reality!  Here's the website of the place if you're interested in learning more about it:  http://www.darsana.sk/en


 random statue

Following the treatment I met up with Helen (the english girl I’d met) and we found a nice restaurant to have a traditional slovakian meal.  I had the goulash which was pretty good, although I can’t wait to get back to Ireland and get back to eating my regular diet! i feel like i've had a meat overload on this trip...

During dinner a parade of manly men marched though the street waving flags and chanting things, all dressed in blue:  


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We had no idea what was going on so we decided to follow them to the main square  and found this:

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Yes, heavy metal screaming Slovak band in the middle of the square, tons of people waving flags, fire crackers going off all over the place – it was absolute mayhem!  Later we went to an outdoor hookah bar to hang out for a bit, and the waiter there told us that the celebration was because the Bratislava football team won the national championship.  So this was definitely not a typical night in the city center.  It was quite crazy to see all this and all the crazy Slovak manly men chanting and going crazy – another entertaining night in eastern Europe!




Helen and her hookah.



At the moment I’m on the train headed to Budapest, which will be the last stop on this trip.  Apparently there’s a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland again so hopefully my flight doesn’t get cancelled.  However, at least I’ll be in a cool city if it does!  That’s it for Bratislava - a short stay but totally worth it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Prost

Day 6 of the big trip has brought me to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. However, let's backtrack a couple days to Vienna, where I spent the previous 2 nights.  The train from Prague took about 5 hours, and surprisingly we didn't have to do any sort of border check / passport control.  Which is a good thing because I only have a couple pages left in my passport.  From the train station it was super easy to get to the hostel; the subway system in Vienna is great!  One of the first things I noticed was that they have an honor system for purchasing newspapers.  Also, no one jay-walks, even if there's not a single car in sight, people wait until the light turns green to cross.


As I hadn't eaten all day yet, a traditional Austrian meal seemed quite appetizing.  I decided to go with their house specialty spare ribs - an extremely massive meaty platter.  And it was delicious!  This place also brews their own beers, so when in Rome...



After getting lost and wandering around for about 2 hours (at least on a full stomach!) I made my way to Belvedere gardens and palace - great way to walk off the massive lunch.






And here's a pic of my lovely hostel - I stayed at the Wombat (stayed at same chain in Munich) and it was probably the nicest, cleanest hostel I've ever stayed at.  They just opened in January, so everything was really new.  There were 2 girls from Argentina and 1 from Australia in the room too. 



Just by coincidence, it just so happened that the Aussie girl who was staying in the hostel room with me also happened to be doing the same bike tour with me the next day.  So it was nice starting the next day off with a friend to have breakfast with before embarking on the long 10-hour bike trip through the Wachau valley.  There was a group of 4 young canadian lads (20-21ish) who were on the tour as well, and I had to sit in front of them the whole bus ride to the bike starting point.  They were still drunk from the night before, so I had the pleasure of listening to them recount tales of binge-drinking from the night before, throwing up in a cave inside the bar they were at, playing with ice-pics, and then continuing to down absinthe, shots, and beers all night... Definitely an entertaining journey to say the least!

We spent the day biking through Wachau Valley, tasting various Austrian wines and different vineyards, and relaxing along the Danube.  And this was not your typical wine-tasting.  The first stop was a winery where we all had 4 glasses (full!) of different wines - three white and one red.  No one spat out the wine, it was literally 4 glasses of wine at 10 in the morning!!  Everyone was a bit buzzed as we started the biking, and it was funny watching people stumble a bit on their bikes. I guess that's why they made us sign a waiver basically saying we wouldn't sue the company if we fell off the bike and got hurt.







We paid a visit to a random graveyard which was actually quite beautiful.  Each grave had a garden planted on top of it with various kinds of flowers.  A few actually had rhubarb and lettuce growing on them which seemed quite strange - I really hope no one's planning to make their dinner salad from those plants!


Next to the graveyard was a small chapel, with an alter made of human skulls and bones.


Gorgeous views all around, and it turned out to be a beautiful day...





We had a big group -  I'd say there were probably about 20 of us.  We had Aussies, Canadians, and 2 other Americans from Texas (now living in Saudi Arabia).



My bike.

This was where we had lunch and three more full glasses of wine...


The noisy lads from the bus are in the front of the group photo...



Danube River!!  My grandpa used to go fishing on this river when he was young, so it was really special to get to go down and splash around in the water for a bit. :)




This was a little town we stopped in for 3 more glasses of wine, as well as a chocolate tasting.



Not so flattering photo of our lovely tour guide, Marla.


And back on the bus at the end of the tour, Marla had plastic cups and our group polished off 3 more bottles of wine.  Apparently it's legal in Austria for passengers to drink in the car - crazy!!  No more being classy and swirling the wines around in our glasses for this road trip!



Two Aussie friends who went on the tour and stayed at my hostel - I thought they had a striking resemblance to two of my friends from high school, only with a different accent.  Just another example to prove that everyone's got a twin out there somewhere in the world!



All smiles after 10+ glasses of wine and biking all day!  That's the hostel lobby by the way behind us.



It wasn't all smiles for about 30 minutes though because I got stuck in the elevator with 5 other people in the hostel.  It was actually quite scary because the elevator dropped 3 floors while we were inside, and it was really really hot inside and started to feel quite claustrophobic, like there wasn't enough oxygen or something.  Needless to say, after we were rescued I stuck with stairs.

Here's the hostel bar / night club...



No alcohol served if you're under 16!  



I didn't spend much time in the city center of Vienna since I spent the entire day out in the countryside on the bike tour, but did manage to capture a few photos of the architecture and St. Stephen's Cathedral in the main square.




The next day was a bit rough considering the excursions of the previous day, but there's no better cure than a lovely boat ride down the Danube River to the next destination - Slovakia!  The boat only takes 15 more minutes than the train, and reaches up to 60km/hr.  I couldn't believe how fast it went!


Farewell Austria!





Hello Slovakia!





This is Bratislava castle.  The long blue boat at the bottom is actually a hotel boat that came down the river from the Netherlands.




Overall Vienna was really nice - I wish I'd had another day to see more of the city center and perhaps see a concert or something, but it was really wonderful to get out into the countryside, see the "real Austria", and make some new friends.  On to the next town!