I was asleep by 11 last night but when the alarm went off at 8am I switched it to snooze … and again … and eventually dragged myself out of bed at 8.20, wishing I had thought to pack my bag the night before. There was a knock at my door. It was Nic, telling me that the departure time had been changed from 9.15 to 8.45. She had texted me last night, but Virgin still haven’t sorted out my phone services (sigh) so of course I had had no idea. Given the huge debate there had been last night about what time we would leave this morning, I was not best pleased to find it had then been changed – especially as this now meant I had only 20 minutes in which to dress, pack my stuff, have breakfast, and have a cigarette.
I did it, of course, mainly by making my breakfast a takeaway one (I grabbed a roll and buttered it at top speed). But it got the day off to a grumpy start, which was not improved by a walk round the block as we went to various locations before eventually arriving at the one where the coach was waiting. I could have had that extra half hour and still joined the coach with everybody else.
The journey to Bratislava was along a country road, and then a motorway. The motorway was passing through the familiar flat fields when suddenly – boff – these ended, and Bratislava began. The change was very sudden. We were in queues of traffic for a while and then, to my astonishment, the coach pulled up right next to the place where I had disembarked from the boat on Friday night. But how nice to be arriving there in daylight, with friends, and people who speak Slovakian, and people who know where all the places are and how to get to them. We had half an hour before our tour guide arrived (see, another half hour) and during this time I described my journey down the Danube (which made those who had travelled by bus from Wien quite envious), followed by my now rather amusing story about how I got on the wrong bus in Bratislava (which made those who had travelled by bus from Wien extremely thankful to have chosen the direct connection).
Our tour guide was excellent. She took us on a two-hour walking tour of the city (we had been warned the night before to wear comfortable shoes), stopping us at intervals to explain about the statues and the buildings, and to give us a potted history of Slovakia. At one point, while we were standing by a beautifully detailed statue of Maria-Therese (enlightened monarch) on a horse, I noticed what seemed to be a statue of Stalin over the road. I decided it must be some other jolly chap, because nobody has a statue of Stalin in their city any more (presumably they were all melted down to make nuclear warheads or something). But it turned out it was Stalin. The guide explained that during the communist era it had stood in the city, but then it had been pulled down and dumped on waste ground, where ‘soldiers used to pee on it’ (which is why it is now green). There is currently an exhibition of socialist realism art in the city gallery, so the statue had been rescued and put outside the gallery to publicise the exhibition, because ‘you cannot erase the past’ (a comment at which we all nodded sagely, because that’s the whole point of our Comenius project). But the statue is not on a pedestal; it stands directly on the ground. So although there has been some debate about the rights and wrongs of using it, it is clear the statue is not intended to honour Stalin or what he stood for.
Actually, quite a lot of the things the guide pointed out had been the subject of much debate over the years, and given the enthusiasm with which Slovakians seem to argue about such simple things as what time to meet in the morning, this did not entirely surprise me. But they do not argue about their national identity. We saw memorials to the man who codified the Slovakian language; the man who argued with the authorities that Slovakians needed to preserve that language, after his mother burst into tears when he spoke to her in Hungarian (the new official language of the time) because she couldn’t understand him; and the first King of the Slavs (although he might not have been, and even if he was he never visited Bratislava).
We also learnt that the city and the neighbouring fort used to be separate settlements, often at war, when the city used the cathedral tower to launch bombs at the castle. And we saw the original Town Hall, which had annexed two neighbouring houses as the administrative needs of the city increased. It was at this point I felt I was back in Ankh-Morpork, especially after learning about the half a city street which the city sold off when it couldn’t afford to maintain it. The street was sold off to a merchant called Venturi.
I felt we were reasonably near to the Danube throughout the tour. This may have been because at two different points our guide showed us where the Danube used to extend to – both now in pedestrian areas bang in the middle of the city. And there is a fountain outside the National Theatre which depicts creatures which used to live in the Danube – turtles, lobster, frogs (I would have thought frogs still do; but maybe it’s too busy for them); and in the walls of one building, apparently, there are lobster shells, to protect it (I missed what from).
At the end of the tour we walked above the Novy Most bus area where I had spent such a happy hour on Friday, and climbed some steps to the castle. Then we climbed more steps – uneven, cobbled ones. Then a very long, steep slope (more uneven cobbles. Even with comfortable shoes this was getting hard on the feet). I thought we’d got as far as we could go at this point, but no – more steps. And then we were on top of the world. The views were amazing – you could easily see why the hill was fortified in the first place (during Roman times). On the south side of the Danube, there were hundreds of tower blocks – built during the communist era in grey concrete, now painted in cheerful colours like the traditional houses in the villages. We could see the docks in the distance downstream, and the city below.
We didn’t go inside the castle itself. It had been a ruin until relatively recently, but was rebuilt in the 1960s (after, unsurprisingly, much debate) accurately to the plans of the building as it was in Maria-Theresa’s day. So outside the castle was the end of our tour and at this point we split into two groups: one going to the station, to sort out various return tickets from the Czech Republic, and one going back into the city. As Nic also needed a ticket for the first part of her journey home tomorrow, I went with the station party (I was also interested to find out the right way to get to it). I felt something of an expert as we bought our bus tickets and waited for the number 93 (not that I had ever previously caught the number 93, but how much duller the story would have been if I had). Once we were on the bus, I was able to point out just how far I had walked on Friday, although I had to tone down the terror a bit, and beef up what a nonce I’d been and how terribly helpful everybody was, because Nic was starting to worry about her own bus connection from the station to the airport tomorrow.
I like Bratislava railway station. Well, I like all railway stations (except Wien Hutteldorf), but Bratislava was something of a quest for me on Friday night and I felt the same feeling of relief and joy when we got there today. Obviously I didn’t actually need to buy a ticket myself, so I visited the loos (very fragrant, only 40c), took some money out at a cashpoint (instructions available in English, also the option of being able to select the exact banknotes), and bought myself a baguette. It was a very relaxing half hour.
I was able to tell Mata that there are currently no trams between the station and the city centre (this was just showing off, really, and given the accuracy of the Bratislava Public Transport website I should probably have kept my mouth shut) so we caught the X13 to the Eurovea shopping centre where we were due to spend the afternoon. And you know what the Eurovea shopping centre is like?
There was H&M, Next, Debenhams, Body Shop, Marks and Spencers …
So we had some lunch (free wifi! Gateau! Cafe latte! Yay!) (although only after I’d ordered my latte did I notice other customers with little teapots), had a quick look in Marks and Spencers to check they were stocking the same lines as at home, and at comparable prices (they are), and then walked back along the river to the old city. I mean, I can go to Milton Keynes any time.
Back at the city centre we re-traced our steps from the tour, to find a shop Nic had noticed which seemed to be selling T-shirts she thought her boys might like. This wasn’t far, so we didn’t make it back to the International Area, which I had enjoyed looking at in the morning – all the themed bars were here (Mexican, Italian etc), including a Scottish bar, the Loch Ness, selling traditional Scottish delicacies like lasagne. We also didn’t make it back to the Oxford Bookshop, which had English titles in it, like Delia’s ‘How to Cook’, and so had been the suddenly familiar in amongst all the unfamiliar. But I did buy some postcards, and a lace heart which is going to be a Christmas decoration when I get it home, and then we sat in a cafe resting our tired feet and borrowing McDonalds’ wi-fi.
Having written my postcards, I needed stamps. The first place we tried had the hunting horn – the sort you get on post boxes in this area – on its sign, and even had the word ‘post’ in its name, but turned out just to be a bank. The second place was a tobacconist, where the shop assistant was clearly tired of dealing with dozy tourists (the gentleman before me had been asking about a cigar punch, what a stupid thing to enquire about in a tobacconist’s shop. And then this English lady asking for stamps!). A postcard shop only sold stamps if you were buying cards, and I’d already bought mine. We tried a little kiosk, in which you could only see hands on the counter, because the window was all covered with posters, and she said no, but she drew us a map to the post office. This was nearly a mile away so at that point I gave up. I’ll get stamps tomorrow in Abraham.
From Bratislava we travelled in the coach to a restaurant within sight of, but a little distance from, Trnava. It is called The Old Mill and that probably tells you all you need to know about it. We were there for a special dinner and we could tell this straight away because:
- There were napkins in each place, two different colours (yellow and blue, Trnava’s colours) folded together, in exactly the style used at the High School catering department – perhaps the staff are all former students.
- There was a martini glass, containing A Drink, and two olives on a stick, for each person. This turned out to contain actual martini – or possibly even vodka-martini – and it tasted exactly like martini used to taste when I first started drinking it, ie very alcoholic.
Dinner was one massive course, with four different sorts of meat, rice, potatoes, and salad (I’m going to stop heating sweetcorn and serve it the energy-efficient Slovakian way, it tastes just as nice). It was lovely, and as I’d eaten my lunch rather earlier than everybody else, with only a huge slice of caramel gateau to keep me going, I soon polished it off. After dinner, coffee, and mine (a latte) came with a little biscuit, unlike everybody else’s. They also brought me a straw, which I thought was a bit strange, until I realised the glass didn’t have a handle, so it was too hot to pick up and sip. I only normally have hot drinks through a straw after visiting the dentist so it was quite a novel experience drinking this one when half my face wasn’t frozen. During dinner people with i-phones compared apps. We talked about things too (talking has become much easier as the visit has progressed, although both Nic and I find ourselves talking in super-simple English quite often, even to each other) but the i-phones were the most fun.
And then we were back on the coach, to Abraham, to drop off the children (there have been some students on the visit, although they have mostly done separate things with their host families).
And then we were back at Trnava, with strict instructions to be outside the hotel at 8.15am, with all our luggage. Tomorrow we are back at the school in Abraham until after lunch, and then we have a four-hour drive to the Czech Republic.