Slow Train to Slovakia

IMG_5829How exciting to get invited to an international school in Bratislava, Slovakia. We had never been to this country so we looked forward to visiting a new place.

How do you get to Bratislava? To fly there from Switzerland, we discovered we’d have to spend a fortune and fly via Dubai. Not a very economical way to go. So we ended up flying to Vienna instead. I’ve always wanted to see Vienna but there was no time. We had to take a bus to Bratislava right away and found the school, tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, with the help of a taxi. I do enjoy traveling in Europe where each country has such a distinct culture, architecture and atmosphere. You can often see where borders used to be but no longer need passports.   While many countries use Euros now, some countries still have their own currency. All have their own language, stamps and other ways to remain unique within a European Union. IMG_5842

A kind teacher hosted us in her home in the nearby village of Borinka, near the town of Stupava. This way we got to see more of the countryside. I liked the yellow churches with their characteristic steeples. The language in Slovakia is something else – some word are easily recognized (like technológie, taxi and centrum) but other words are beyond guesswork (zastávka is stop; predajňa means shop).

IMG_5853

Bratislava’s Blue Church

Many apartment buildings in the city are still old Soviet buildings. But these get spruced up with more cheerful colours and balconies. The border with Austria is where the Iron Curtain used to be and we wondered how Austrians must have felt to see these concrete cities going up but not being allowed to cross or visit. Apparently they did put up radio towers in an effort to help the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain to help listen to the rest of the world. I was surprised by the number of large factories providing employment here: Samsung, Kia, Volkswagen are all here to have products manufactured in Slovakia.

While I worked in school, Kees explored the countryside and nearby towns by walking until some dogs chased him. He climbed the hill sides and sampled Slovak beer despite the cold wind. We also enjoyed sampling traditional dishes with meat, potatoes and lots of cheese. 

thumb_FH1During our last weekend, we stayed in a funky hotel in Bratislava (The Film Hotel with Oscars at the door, we were in the Bruce Willis room…) and walked all over downtown. The castle towered over the small town with its white walls and red roofs.

We visited squares, statues, fountains, fine buildings and a gorgeous Blue Church. 

IMG_5837One of our favourite statues here was ‘Men at Work’. 

svickova-and-bread-dumplings

Slovak bread

Our favourite restaurant was The Slovak Pub. This rinkydink old wooden building had many rooms, each with a theme related to the country’s heritage and history: poets, freedom fighters, heroes. The food was fabulous. We sampled Slovak dumplings with bacon, traditional bread and great soups.

IMG_1364Leaving Slovakia, we boarded the train from Bratislava to Prague. Confusing reigned since many travellers had assigned seats but the other half did not. A nice group of young Czech men ‘adopted’ us and gave us their seats. “Ah Canada, good!” they cheered when they heard where we were from. Then they told us they had spend the national holiday weekend going to Slovak to taste wine. In the fall, you can do ‘wine walks’ here, walking from winery to winery and visiting wine cellars. They pulled out the bottles of wine and past them around and around. “We are from Pilsen,” they said, explaining that they all work in the Pilsner breweries in Czech Republic. It was a jolly train ride to Prague!

http://www.filmhotel.sk

https://slovakpub.sk/en/

IMG_1363

A Slovak poem

Extremadura – a string of ancient pearls

img_2131

Galisteo, Spain

Before we came to Spain, I decided that I wanted to see the Extremadura region. I read several articles about the area, specifically an article about one of the oldest, medieval pubs on the continent, which I wanted to see. Ironically, once we got here I could no longer find any information about the pub or its location…

Extremadura was described, in many travel articles, as a long-isolated region, a bit backward, not very popular with tourists. I was curious about its towns and history.

Extremadura turned out to be different from what I pictured: not a deep, green valley but a dry region of rolling hills. We found lovely towns with a rich history, and we enjoyed the lack of hordes of tourists. In fact, we often commented that we had entire roads to ourselves.

img_2148We started in Plasencia, driving south to Cáceres. We soon discovered that we were here during a local holiday and ended up having to book several nights in one place to ensure we had a place to stay. We stayed just outside the village of Casar de Cáceres, in a lovely B & B called La Encarnacion, our room was in a remodeled barn.

(http://www.hotelquintalaencarnacion.com). We were served a traditional Extremadura breakfast of warm bread, thick, soft cheese, paté and bread with tomato/pork salsa inside.

Many of the towns in this region boast medieval buildings: castles on a hillside, often a whole village still surrounded by thick stone city walls. Galisteo, just west of Plasencia, is an old village that is still completely surrounded by these walls, with only a few gates that offer entrance to the town. We had to park our car outside the city walls and walked to the town square with its ancient clock on city hall, chimig the hours as it had for centuries.

img_2157We spent one day in Trujillo, high on a hill side, the town is still partially surrounded by walls with a castle and ancient church guarding the corners. It is easy to stroll along the battlements and imagine enemy armies approaching across the plains… We walked up and down streets from the middle ages that weren’t much wider than 1.5 meter in some places, with purple and red bougainvilleas cascading down white stone walls.

Our final couple of days in the region were spent in Mérida, where the remains of some buildings were much older than the Middle Ages. Mérida boasts numerous Roman sites.

img_2190

Templo De Diana

We found a lovely AirBnB in the old downtown core, enabling us to walk to the different sites. We started at Puento Romano, the longest (in length) surviving Roman bridge. From there, we walked to the Templo de Diana, a facade and pillars left standing among stores, coffeeshops and narrow alleys. We then hiked across town to two large Roman aquaducts, the most imposing one of which is the Acueducto de Milagros: 25 meter tall arches spanning an area of about 800 meters, displaying impressive stone work that has lasted almost 2,000 years!

If this history is what makes Extremadura unique, combined with first class pastries, ham, cheese and chocolate, than the area deserves a lot more visitors!img_2200