Hear about travel to Slovakia as the Amateur Traveler talks to Julie Callahan from TheWorldInBetween.com. When Julie’s family moved to Bratislava, Slovakia 3 years ago they didn’t have a single friend who knew where this central European country was located.
Friends who visit want to see the better-known capitals of Prague or Vienna, which Julie says is painful since she has fallen in love with Bratislava. “I come home and sit in the old square of Bratislava and have my coffee in the morning, and maybe it’s 8 o’clock, and I can count on one hand how many people are sitting in the square. and I have this beautiful beautiful equivalent square to what they have in Prague, smaller but equally beautiful, all to myself.”
Julie recommends we start our visit to Slovakia in Bratislava. “It is part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire so there is a level of opulence. There is a street that is largely old palaces, some of which have been made into museums. There are a few art museums that are worth maybe a look. On the old town square, there is a museum dedicated to the history of winemaking. This is an area where the wine tradition goes back more than a millennium. If you go into the home of virtually any home in Bratislava you will find 13th and 14th-century wine cellars that are just fantastic. Just behind that is what I always refer to as the Pink Palace, built by Maria Theresa who is one of the more famous empresses of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
Julie recommends a visit to the Small Carpathian Mountains. “Rimmed along the Small Carpathian Mountains are a series of little wine villages, Modra, Pezinok, Svätý Jur, each of which makes a nice day trip. If you happen to be there in the fall each of these villages will have a wine festival and the weekend of that wine festival will have something like their Goose Feast and it’s kind of like our Thanksgiving; it’s the celebration of the harvest. It’s goose and stewed red cabbage, not exactly like the American Thanksgiving meal but similar.”
“When you leave Bratislava, one of the things that we did, it was quite fun, maybe a little daring, maybe not for those who are shy, we went to Pieš?any which is a spa town and we had the hot mud treatment. If you are averse to nudity, you may not want to do it, but basically, we laid on a rubber matt while a woman pulled a gas hose out of the wall and sprayed us with hot mud and wrapped us up. We had to have a doctor’s visit. We did everything she [the doctor] recommended.”
The World Inbetween
Come to Slovakia
Bratislava Main Square
Bike Throughout Austria
Museum of Viticulture
Bratislava Music Festival
International Gregorian Chant Festival
Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar (site not in English)
Best Beer Garden in Bratislava
“Taste the bryndzové haluski!”
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Jim McDonough Travel to Vermont – Episode 440
Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 442. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about wine, and palaces, mountains, and mudbaths, as we go to Slovakia.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. This is your host, Chris Christensen. This is normally the sponsorship spot. We don’t have a sponsor this week, but I do have good news. It looks like a a couple sponsors will be signing up soon. If you are also interested in sponsoring the Amateur Traveler and getting a message out about your destination or company to a bunch of avid travelers, send me an email to host at amateurtraveler.com.
I’d like to welcome Julie Callahan, who is coming to us from theworldinbetween.com and come to talk to us about Slovakia. Julie, welcome to the show.
Julie: Yeah, thank you Chris. Thanks for having me.
Chris: And, so, I guess the first thing we should talk about with Slovakia, is we’re going to surprise a few people who still think there’s a country called Czechoslovakia on the map some place, or might be having a problem finding the eastern half of that old country, being a country in its own right now, for a number of years.
Julie: When we decided to move to Slovakia three years ago, I don’t know that we had a single friend that knew where Slovakia was.
Julie: And when we said we were moving to Bratislava, Slovakia, there was actually a woman in the grocery store who wrote down the word “Bratislava” and every time we saw her she’d pull it out of the cashier box and say, “When are you moving to Bratislava?” She just could not remember the name of that city. It’s funny, because the two closest capitals in the world are Bratislava and Vienna, and virtually everyone knows Vienna. Even though people think we moved to the dark side of the moon, it really wasn’t all that dark.
Chris: I didn’t realize they were all that close. Are they across the Danube from each other?
Julie: They’re across the Danube, and they’re maybe, probably from city border to city border, maybe 40 km. Something like that. Quite close.
Chris: Okay, I don’t know that it actually qualifies as the two closest capitals, because I can think of at least two in Africa that are closer than that, that are across the Congo River from each other.
Julie: Yeah, maybe so. Gosh, maybe somebody lied to me.
Chris: I think they may have.
Julie: That’s okay.
Chris: A lot of people, when we talk about the old Czechoslovakia, a lot of people go to the Czech Republic, and to Prague especially. Why should we go to the other half? Why should we go to Slovakia?
Julie: I go to Prague a lot, because every time people come to Bratislava, they want to go one of two places, Prague, and Vienna. Which is a little painful, right? For someone who has come to love the country of Slovakia. I come home and sit in the old square of Slovakia. Bratislava and have my coffee in the morning. Maybe it’s 8 o’clock, and I can count on one hand how many people are sitting in the square. How many people are in the square. I have this beautiful, beautiful, equivalent square to what they have in Prague, smaller, but equally beautiful, all to myself. I always ask myself, “Why did I go to Prague?” It’s really an equally charming city. Quite a bit smaller, but equally charming and certainly in the morning, and at night, when the boat people have left, the Danube Cruise people have left, you have the city to yourself.
Chris: And, I would think Slovakia is going to tend to be a little less expensive than either Austria or the Czech Republic, am I right in that?
Julie: Yeah, it’s certainly cheaper than Austria. The only thing that is different about Slovakia, unlike most Central European countries, it’s on the Euro.
Chris: Oh, okay, so that makes it a little more expensive.
Julie: So, at times it’s not as cheap as you might think it would be, but certainly I can find less expensive restaurants than I can in the city center of Prague.
Julie: So, yeah.
Chris: And what kind of itinerary would you recommend for people if I had say, a week to explore Slovakia? I’m going to start in Bratislava, I assume?
Julie: You’re going to start in Bratislava. You’re probably going to, if you’re flying, you’re probably going to fly into Vienna. Although if you’re coming from a European country, Ryan Air services Bratislava so there’s other ways that you can get there. Very likely you’re going to fly into Vienna, come over to Bratislava. I certainly would spend a couple of days in the capital city, because it is a very charming old town. There is a wonderful World War II cemetery, up on the hills above Bratislava called the Slavan Monument. There’s a little village called Devín, which is, oh gosh, by bus, maybe 15 minutes away. There’s an interesting castle and it sits on the river. It’s a nice wine village. There’s the Small Carpathian Mountains, and, and rimmed along the Small Carpathian Mountains, are a series of little wine villages, Modra, Pezinok, Svätý Jur, each of which makes a nice day-trip. If you happen to be there in the fall, each of those villages will have a wine festival. Then the weekend of that wine festival, they’ll have something called their Goose Fest and it’s kind of like our Thanksgiving. It’s the celebration of the harvest. It’s goose, and stewed red cabbage, and not exactly like the American Thanksgiving meal, but similar.
Julie: So, I’d leave a few days for that. My favorite thing to do, potentially in all of Europe, is to bike the country-side of Austria. Slovakia, Bratislava, is only about a 15 minute bike ride, I don’t know, three or four kilometers to the Austrian border. I just did this actually, last weekend, with a friend. There you can go to a Russian World War I cemetery. You can see a reenactment, if you will, of the border as it used to exist between Communist Czechoslovakia and the Western Austria. There’s the barbed-wire fence, relocated. There’s bunkers, etc.
Then on just a dedicated network of bike-trails, you can bike through the little villages of Austria, many of which have wine cellars. It’s just a beautiful and fabulous time. I used to always say, when we left our apartment, “I put my foot down one time and I was in Austria.” There’s one light by my apartment, and then I was on a dedicated biking trail. I’d dedicate a good bit of a time for that region. Then, when you leave Bratislava, one of the things that we did, it was quite fun, it was maybe a little bit daring, maybe not for those that are shy, but we went to Pieš?any, which is a spa town.
Julie: And we had the hot mud treatment which, oh! If you’re adverse to nudity, you may not want to do it. Basically, we laid on a rubber mat while a woman pulled a gas-hose out of the wall and sprayed us with hot mud and wrapped us up, so that was quite fun. We had to have a doctor’s visit, which the doctor’s visit was right in the resort, was right in the hotel, but a doctor visited us. She was Austrian, I believe. She spoke English with quite a German accent and would say things like, “Hot mud ze good.” We did everything she recommended and that was a weekend, maybe as an over-night, that would be fun to do.
Then you can go up to the Tatras Mountains. I used to live in the United States, in Colorado, I always say, “It’s what Walt Disney would create if he wanted to create the Colorado mountains in the back of Epcot Center.” It’s a very tiny little mountain range, maybe it’s 30 miles from end-to-end but it is the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. There’s little villages there that are quite quaint. One of my particular favorites is Starý Smokovec, and you can access it out of a bigger town called Poprad. Poprad’s accessible by train and then through a little a little electric train you can go up to the villages like Starý Smokovec and you can hike and it’s really quite lovely.
Then from there you can head to the eastern part of the country and east and west is quite different in Slovakia. East is going to more the rural traditions. It’s pushing more to Romania and the Ukraine. You’re going to see people raising pigs in their back yard and families come home in the fall and there’s a pig slaughter. The pig is professionally killed and the whole family comes in and they drink and they prepare sausage and just have a wonderful family gathering and festival around it. Certainly, if you’re willing to travel by car to go down into the lower Tatras, Banská Štiavnica, where they have a very unusual station to the cross built as a monument on the hillside.
There’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a cluster of little wooded houses set up on a hill, and it’s very pretty in the lower Tatras. It’s called Vlkolínec It’s a very, very interesting area, which like I said, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s very much the west of the country and that tends to be the professionals, it tends to be the city, it tends to be the capital. Then there’s the east of the country which tends to be the olde world, it tends to be farming and very much a life that you could find, from a United States perspective, probably 200 years ago.
Chris: Okay. Let’s pause there for a second.
Chris: I want, I want to kind of go back through some of that in a little more detail.
Julie: Yup. Sure.
Chris: So we started in Bratislava. So let’s talk a little more. I think you had us spending a day or two in Bratislava.
Chris: So what kind of things am I going to do in Bratislava? You mentioned being in the old square, so we have an old, medieval town center, like so many of the cities in the area. Any particular things we’re going to do while we’re, let’s start with the town center?
Julie: Bratislava isn’t going to be a city that you’ll go to for the museums. There’s not an equivalent of The Louvre, or something like that.
Julie: But it is part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, right, so there is a level of opulence. There’s a street that is largely old palaces, some of which have been made into museums. There’s a few little art museums that are worth maybe a look.
Chris: And are there specifics of the art museums, or of the palaces, that you would recommend? Do this one, don’t do that one?
Julie: I would say my two favorite would be on the old town square, and this may not sound terribly intriguing, but it was to me. In the old town square there was a museum that is dedicated to the history of wine making.
Chris: You just got several people to perk up their ears as you said that.
Julie: “Did she say wine?” This is an area where the wine tradition goes back more than a millennium.
Julie: And if you go into the basement of virtually any home, any where in Bratislava or the surrounding hillsides, you’re going to find 13th and 14th Century wine cellars that are just fantastic. If you go to one of the villages I mentioned during the wine festival, people might bottle 200 bottles of wine a year from what they grow in a half-acre in their backyard. They bottle it with their friends and family and it’s largely for gifts, and things like that.
Chris: So this is one of the reasons that I don’t recognize Slovakian wines is that some of these producers are not producing enough that they’re going to ship it anywhere.
Julie: You got it. They are, most of them, are not going to ship it out of the country. Yet, some of them are sold to restaurants throughout the country. Others that are incredibly tiny don’t sell it at all, but on the weekend where there’s the Wine Festival, they will open their house and you can come in and buy wine. I was actually just driving through Modra with a friend last weekend, a Slovak friend, and I asked him, “What are they selling from those tables?” It was almost every house had a card table with four or five or six plastic liter soda bottles filled with something. He pulled over the car, ran, bought a bottle, and we poured little Dixie cups of what was called “New Wine”.
Julie: So still very fizzy. Very, kind, of grapey…
Chris: This year’s wine.
Julie: This year’s wine and it had just been produced as part of the festival. Wine is a big part of the region. The History of Wine Museum, right on the main square, is actually, I thought, very well done.
Chris: And with the wines, are we talking most reds? Or whites? Or is there something that they’re similar to that people would know?
Julie: I would say, they have both reds and whites.
Julie: I’m not a wine connoisseur, so similarity…
Chris: That’s fine.
Julie: … I’m not going to go there, but some of them are quite good. I drink wine, I don’t drink beer, I do drink wine, and some of them are quite good. Certainly I would recommend people try it. If not because the the wines are wonderful, because it’s so deeply rooted in the culture.
Chris: Okay and then you started to say something about the wine museum before I so rudely cut you off.
Julie: No worries. The Wine Museum, in the basement, there’s really a lot about the history of wine. Over top of it, it’s a mansion of a man that used to live in Bratislava. It’s several hundred years old building and you can tour the mansion and you can tour the history of wine.
Just behind that is what I always refer to as the “Pink Palace” commonly known as the Pink Palace built by Maria Theresa, who’s one of the more famous empresses of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Julie: And that served as a home for the empire. There is the little teeny chapel, that was their personal chapel, that still has services on Sunday. It’s only day of the week typically that you can get into it. If you swing by just before or after service, you can peek your head in and that’s quite interesting. Other than that, Bratislava is a town of a massive number of festivals. Music festivals, classic music is quite enormous, and photography is big. In November there’s the month of photography. In many of these little museums, there’ll be a special exhibit. I’ve heard classical music concerts. I have seen world famous photographers works displayed. You really have to, kind of, poke around the old town and find out what’s happening on any given weekend. Which can take a little bit of exploration, right? I wouldn’t say that Slovakia is the best country at marketing itself, so sometimes you have to do a little poking around.
Chris: And you mentioned festivals. Is there a particular favorite festival? Or, “Gee, if you are going to plan a trip to Slovakia and you have your choice, you really ought to go at this time of year because this festival is just unmissable.”?
Julie: I would say in September is when you’re going to hit the wine festivals. October, and it was last week and this, so right about the middle of October is the classical music festival. We heard the Vienna Philharmonic last weekend at the Reduta, which is the only way you can affordably hear the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s probably half, or a third the cost of what it would cost you if you actually saw them in Vienna. Then in November, it’s the month of photography. Usually there’s a photographer that’s maybe the spotlight, but maybe 20 or 30 other photographers. Last year it was Robert Capa, the famous Hungarian war photographer that was the focus of the month of photography. For a little village, it has an amazing number of festivals.
We went to to their Gregorian Chant Festival.
Julie: I can’t tell you, Chris, when that was. I was sitting at home one evening, and my husband said, “I’m going to go to the Gregorian Chant Festival,” and I thought, “If you want to have a beer, just tell you’re going to go to the bar and have a beer.” Sure enough, he came home with the pamphlet from the Gregorian Chant Festival, and I actually went to the finals and it was really quite something. Lots of festivals, many of them around music and many of them around the arts, and certainly around the churches.
Chris: One of the things that’s interesting, that you mentioned, the Classical Music Festival being in the fall. I think a lot of tourists, especially from the US, are surprised when they go to Europe that a lot of the orchestra seasons, or the opera seasons, or whatever, are not in the summer when a lot of tourists come but in the fall and winter when the locals can enjoy them. You miss that often by coming in the summertime with a lot of the rest of the tourist crowd.
Julie: Absolutely, and that’s absolutely true here. The festivals for music are almost all in the fall. Fall and early winter.
That is a fabulous time. Bratislava also has two opera houses. One in the historic part of town, and one in a modern complex called Eurovea, which is over on the Danube. There are probably, two to three operas every single week in Bratislava. Unlike many cities I’m used to, where maybe there will be three operas a year, and they’ll do each of those three operas several times, Bratislava will do 15 operas a year, 20 operas a year. I always said it would be a perfect place to live for a winter if you wanted to do a crash-course on opera, and opera appreciation because virtually every major opera, all of them will play over the course of the winter. It’s really a fabulous and vibrant music culture.
Chris: Now, one of the things that’s interesting about that, for me, is I’m not aware of any operas in the Slovak language. They’re all going to be in Italian, and German, and various other languages?
Julie: They are, but, Chris, if it helps you they will be subtitled in Slovak.
Chris: Really? That will be helpful, thank you.
Julie: So there you go.
Chris: I appreciate that.
Julie: Good point, though. Know your opera and I’m certainly not an opera aficionado, but when I’m going to go I always read the summary, because I’m going to hear it in Italian and I’m going to see the subtitles in Slovak.
Chris: In Slovak.
Julie: So, I ought to know the story before I go to the opera, right? I find that to be just fine because I find it to be distracting to always be reading the subtitles anyway. If you know the story and read the Wikipedia Cliffnotes. Then I go the opera.
Chris: And I’m going to guess you didn’t know Slovak before you went there?
Julie: I didn’t know it before I went, and I don’t know it today.
Chris: You don’t know it today.
Chris: It’s a little less approachable than some languages. How easy is it to get around if you only know a few words of Slovak? If you only know please and thank you, which are…?
Julie: You certainly, in any country… I can say please, thank you, check please, hello, goodbye, and those kinds of things. I find in Central Europe that that gets you a long way, so if you’re willing to say a couple of things, people are really going to work with you. I must say, across Slovakia and even in Bratislava, there is not a massive amount of English spoken. You do have to feel comfortable with that. When we first moved, and we were less maybe, prepared, to deal with the fact that we couldn’t speak the language, we went to a little village called Ra?a, which is just outside of Bratislava. It’s really almost a suburb and it’s one of the wine villages. We hiked in the Small Carpathian Mountains up above town. We came down and we wanted to eat lunch, and the waitress could not speak a word of English and we could not, at that point, speak a word of Slovak and she tried so hard to describe everything on the menu, and it just wasn’t working. Finally she sat there and thought and she stuck her finger up, like to say “Eureka”, and she said, “Schnitzel”. I realized, when in doubt, I told my husband after that, “When in doubt, we’re going to eat schnitzel.” If you know a couple of words you’ll get by but you do learn to distill your language to the most simple words possible.
Chris: Sure. Nouns.
Julie: You got it. I speak a lot now, of noun-based English. Never use a sentence where a single word will do. You’ve got to be willing to laugh. You’ve got to be willing to realize that you may eat a dinner that was completely not what you ordered, or what you thought you ordered and you’ve got to be able to roll with it. If you can do that then Slovakia is a wonderful country and if you can’t do that you probably ought to stick to Western Europe. Right?
Chris: You can always point to somebody else’s plate if it looks good and say you’ll have that.
Julie: You can. I will say this, though, Central Europe is largely less affluent countries and they do eat every single body part. If you don’t want to eat brains and kidneys, you might want to learn a few works of the language.
Chris: Have a phrase book or something.
Julie: Exactly. Bring a phrase book.
Chris: And then in Slovak, please and thank you are what?
Julie: Oh my gosh. Prosím is the equivalent of always saying, it’s like “Prego” in Italy. Prosím, Prosím and then ?akujem is “Thank You”. Slovak is one of the Slavic languages, which is Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia. Most of the former Yugoslavia so there is a fairly large part of the world that can move around and communicate.
Julie: And if you know the handful of words from one of those countries, they’ll work in many of the countries.
Chris: Excellent and before we leave Bratislava, any particular restaurants, hotels or neighborhoods that you would recommended?
Julie: For places to spend the night, I would say be as close or in the old pedestrian neighborhood as possible. Bratislava right now has, I think, for capital cities, the lowest occupancy rate of any capital city. When it became no longer communist, the EU dumped a ton of money in there. They’ve probably over built hotels and there’s a lot of great value. Generally when we go up there for the weekend, and we do quite frequently, I just go to booking.com. I pull up the map and I find whatever the best sale is within the Old City. There is a brew pub, and we talked a little bit about wine, but really what Czechoslovakia was known for, what both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are known for, are their beers.
Julie: And there is a place called Meštiansky Pivovar, Pivovar being a beer garden. They have two places now right in the vicinity of Old Town. They’re always packed and overflowing, and its a fun place to go have a meal and beer. I always tell people, readily drink anywhere in the city because beer is ridiculously cheap. It’s maybe €1 or a €1.50 for a half-liter of beer.
Chris: And you just got more people heading to Slovakia that way.
Julie: Unfortunately it has now attracted the English lads, who love the cheap beer and it has become a little bit of a tourist industry for stag parties. If you put all of that to the side, you can have some wonderful meals and wonderful beer for a pretty good discount. There’s a lot of places and I don’t find that the recommendations on Tripadvisor are usually pretty spot on.
Julie: And I do think that Meštiansky pivovars may be the number one ranked restaurant right now.
Chris: And is there one particular, in terms of restaurants, is there one particular local dish that you really ought to try?
Julie: There’s local dishes.
Chris: We know we’re going to end up with the schnitzel, but if we could get something else is there one that we should try instead?
Julie: Moving beyond schnitzel, I’m going to give you three. There is a dish called bryndzové halušky. Bryndzové is sheep cheese and halušky is like a little, potato gnocchi. It is the dish of Slovakia. They serve it with sour cream and bacon and if you’re seeing a cardiologist, for any reason, you might want to avoid it but otherwise, it is their national dish.
They do a lot of pork knuckle and gosh, I learned to love it. If you’re there in the fall, you have to have a goose feast.
Julie: It just is. Bratislava, compared to some places in Central Europe, compared to Prague as an example, really does Slovak food well. It does not do a lot beyond Slovak well.
Julie: I wouldn’t say go to the local Italian or Chinese restaurant, or anything else. I would say you’re in Slovakia, so for a week eat Slovak food.
Chris: Excellent. Now the first place you mentioned was Devín, but I don’t think you mentioned why we were going there.
Julie: Okay, we can go to Devín. Devín is a little bit interesting. For one thing, sometimes when we went to Devín, if you’re a hiker, we would hike from the kind of far, northwestern reaches of Bratislava. You can actually take a tram up there and then hike to the village of Devín. Devín isn’t another big wine village, but it has a very nice ruined castle on the hill and most people would go to Devín to see the small village, but then more importantly the castle. It is right on the Austrian border and there is also some monuments to people that perished trying to escape Czechoslovakia during Communism.
Julie: So, it certainly a bit part of the Communist history of the region.
Chris: Excellent. You were talking about the Small Carpathian Mountains.
Julie: Bratislava sits on the edge of the Small Carpathians, and then…
Chris: And they would be going down to the southeast of Bratislava?
Julie: They more-or-less terminate, I would say, at Bratislava. Bratislava is where things start to flatten out.
Julie: So, they kind of build heading, I guess I would say northeast.
Chris: Northeast. Okay.
Julie: In my mind, at least. Northeast, heading out of Bratislava, they build. Immediately outside of Bratislava, so day-trips, I mean, anywhere from 20 minute to 30 minute train rides are places like, Svätý Jur, St. George, It’s a very tiny village. I would probably go there if you happen to be in the fall, and you happen to be there during Svätý Jur’s wine festival.
Julie: Up from Svätý Jur is Pezinok. Pezinok is a much bigger village, and is also one of the famous wine villages. Pezinok you can go to at any time and you could in the fall you can certainly have a goose feast and wine any of the weeks from the first of September to the end of November. Quite a quaint village. Then Modra, and Modra is also one of the wine villages. The same comments hold true that I made for Pezinok. It’s a place where you can meander, see a small, 500 year old village, maybe pop your head into a church, and have some wine, and a goose feast. Maybe you’ll be there during the wine festival.
That’s kind of very, a nice kind of small-town view and very accessible from the city of Bratislava. If you start to go further afield, you end up in villages like Trenova. A bigger, interesting village. All of these, Chris, are. They’re interesting small villages. You’re going there to see small village life. You’re going there maybe to find a wine vineyard, or something where you can visit. Maybe there’s going to be a very small place that sells some home bottled wine. You’re going to see the little square. You’re going to see the classic kind of architecture of Slovakia.
Chris: I don’t know that I can picture classic Slovakian architecture.
Julie: I always say, “The Plasterer’s Union must have been the richest people in Slovakia.” If you’ve ever been to any of Central Europe where you see those plastered houses, sometimes brightly painted.
Julie: But then they always always have little, kind of, curlicues and little adornments in plaster.
Julie: That is very much also Slovakia. If anyone has been to Romania, Poland, areas of Hungary it’s very similar because, keep in mind, this was all, kind of, one big happy empire, right?
Chris: Right. Well not happy everywhere. As we know from World War I.
Julie: So, there’s a lot of similarity as you go through the region so I don’t think I would go to all the small villages.
Julie: But I think I would choose a small village.
Chris: And my impression is that you were recommending, if we were going to get out of town, probably the easiest way to do that would be by car.
Julie: Certainly by car. Although, I will say this, my husband and I are kind of committed to not using a car.
Julie: So we use public transportation, even when it’s not the easiest thing to do. If someone is willing to drive, the roads in Bratislava and the roads in Greater Slovakia are very modern.
Julie: It’s not going to be a difficult country to drive across so I would say feel absolutely free to rent a car.
Chris: But then, it sounds like bus and train are also an option.
Julie: But bus and train are an option because as in most small, poor countries, there’s lots of people that don’t have cars. Most of the villages I just talked about, Svätý Jur, Pezinok, Modra, and Trenova, they are all very easily accessible by train.
Chris: Excellent. I want to get back to the spa town that you mentioned, whose name escapes me.
Julie: Oh, yes. Pieš?any. There are several spa towns in this region. I would certainly say Austria is famous for them. There’s some in Slovakia, I think Pieš?any would be the most famous. There’s some in the Czech Republic, there’s some in Hungary. There’s that whole kind of thermal area of the world that have built up quite a spa presence and they’re interesting. Spa towns, to Slovaks, are medical treatment facilities.
Chris: Well, I thought that was interesting, you mentioned that you met with a doctor. This isn’t just a, that does make it different to me than anything I’ve heard described in terms of “taking the waters” in Germany or some of the nearby countries.
Julie: Yeah, we met with a doctor and that’s not atypical, I would say, in the Central European Region because spa treatments are covered, certainly in Slovakia, by medical insurance.
Julie: So, if your doctor prescribes you need to go spend a week in the spa, and it is very strongly believed that these waters are therapeutic, then your insurance is going to pay for that. The value of the spa differs by the chemical composition of the water.
Julie: So certain spas are famous for joint disorders.
Chris: Okay, sure.
Julie: Cardiac disorders. There’s even kind of a method to the madness. Now obviously my husband and I, we went for a couple of reasons. To see a spa, we’d heard a lot about it and I wanted to write about it for my blog. I make him go to a lot of places he might not otherwise choose to go, because I choose to write about it for my blog. It was a little intimidating. Once I did it, it was really quite fun. When I checked in, and I was kind of hoping I could say, “Hey I’m here, I’ll sign the release form, don’t need to talk to the doctor.” The woman said, “Oh you’re just in time, your doctor’s appointment is an an hour.” I went up and met with a nurse and then talked to the doctor. I don’t believe she did anything but take my blood pressure and then I went in and spoke with the doctor, and the doctor asked a lot of leading questions, to be honest. “Your neck is stiff, right?”
Julie: “My neck is stiff.” She nailed that one. She kind of came up with a lot of the classic complaints that all of us have, and then she wrote a treatment plan for me based on those complaints. Then I went downstairs, took the doctor’s “prescription”, if you will, and booked my treatments for the weekend.
Julie: So, since my neck was stiff, yes, I had a mud treatment. I actually stayed in a place called the Thermia Palace. Palace could be a bit of an overstatement but it’s certainly a Western European style spa. Unfortunately, the only mud treatments, or fortunately, were in the more local spa, if you will, so, the Slovak spa. I went to the Slovak spa where it was a much more medicinal, incredibly unfancy place. Literally it was just white tile floor, white tile walls, metal bed with a rubberized sheet that she was going to wrap around me. It looked exactly like the nozzle that you would fill your car with, a gas nozzle. She pulled it from the wall and sprayed me with hot mud and then wrapped me in this very spartan rubber sheet, and had me lay there for 15 or 20 minutes and then had me get up, completely naked, mind you, minus the mud, while she kind of sprayed me down with something that would look a little bit like a car power-wash hose.
Chris: And you make that sound so good, there.
Julie: Honestly, it was kind of a blast. I do recognize that not everyone wants to spend their holiday that way. That’s Slovakia, Chris, right? If you really don’t want to dabble on the other side of life, you may not want to go to Slovakia. I think people that are going to be attracted to Slovakia are going to be attracted for a reason. They want to see the non-westernized world and this is part of the non-westernized world, right?
Julie: So, there is no flute music. There’s no incense here. There’s no cuddly robe. You’re probably not covered. You’re laying on, more-or-less, a doctor’s examination table while someone gives you a massage in a very, kind of therapeutic manner. It’s not at all parading as the kind of spas that we associate with areas in Western Europe or the United States, certainly.
Chris: Okay. Excellent. Now, you also mentioned the UNESCO site but I don’t think we talked about what it was. The name of which we had trouble with, here.
Julie: Vlkolínec. Vlkolínec is the name. It is a little cluster of homes, probably, I would say, 30 or 40 homes, up on some rolling green hills. These little homes are all from a couple of hundred years ago, and it’s like a little restored village.
Chris: Oh, okay.
Julie: Some of the homes still lived in, others of the homes more tourist oriented. It’s kind of like stepping back in time to this little 200 year old classic wooden village in the Slovak hillside. That is a place that I would say you certainly need to get to by car. It’s now heading more toward the lower Tatras. You’re now heading out more into that Poprad, High Tatras region of Slovakia. You’re starting to get more into the middle of the country. We went there, actually, with Slovak friends that wanted us to see it and it was just really quite beautiful, and amazing, and lovely views off into the distance and very interesting small homes. Like a lot of the old restored villages that I grew up, I grew up in the northeast of the United States and a lot of the old, restored villages that I think are from my youth.
Chris: Excellent. I want to start winding us down here, a little bit.
Chris: What was the biggest surprise when you moved to Slovakia?
Julie: Well I guess I should say, first of all, we moved to Slovakia sight unseen.
Chris: Well that’s adventurous.
Julie: Yeah. There you go. All I needed to know was that it was in Europe. I was given an opportunity to relocate for corporate America, for an assignment. I was asked if I would go to Slovakia, and I agreed. I had to fly there exclusively to input my request for residency. I had a 15 minute government meeting. I had to fly there in advance of our relocation. When I started to walk around the old village, I called my husband up immediately and he was like, “Oh my gosh, what’s it like?” I said, “Well, it certainly can’t be a third-world country. They sell €500 Ray Bans.”
There are those things that have taken over the world, for right or for wrong, for good or for bad, and they’ve taken over areas of Slovakia. I guess, part of the surprise was how modern it was and how westernized it was but the other equal part of the surprise, I guess, is how modern it’s not.
Julie: So, whereas I can buy designer clothes and glasses, and they have a mall that’s as fabulous as any mall that I’ve ever seen, I also can go into a village and young girls are dressed up in folk costume, dancing. Not because they’re performing, but because that’s what they do. Whole families go home, every weekend and in the fall when they go to grandmother’s house, part of what they do is slaughter and prepare the pig that she has raised for the last year to feed the family for the next year. I was equally surprised by how modern it is, and how unmodern it is.
Chris: Excellent. Before I get to my last three questions, anything else we should know before we book our trip to Bratislava or to the rest of Slovakia?
Julie: I mean, as long as you pack your sense of humor you’ll be fine. I always tell my husband, “At the end of the day, nobody dies.” The worst thing that ever happens to us is just not all that bad, right?
Chris: Well, and you led into my next question perfectly, which is, One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Slovakia.”
Julie: Oh, my goodness, so many choices. What am I going to choose? There is a complete irreverence. These are some like, awfully proud people. We went into a Pivovar, and the owner of the Pivovar was drinking heavily, and he said, “You know in Germany they got Oktoberfest, but the heck with that. This is Slovakia. This is Beer Revolution.” They’re just kind of out there. They’re fiercely kind of proud, and they’re fiercely kind of crazy, and fiercely irreverent. You never know what to expect. Each and every day something would happen that would just make me say, “Oh, my gosh, where are we living? Oh, my gosh, that was awesome.”
Chris: You really know you’re in Slovakia when? What?
Julie: You really know you’re in Slovakia when you can drink the best beer in the world for a Euro.
Chris: Excellent, and if you had to summarize Slovakia in just three words, what three words would you use?
Julie: Traditional. Emerging.
Chris: Excellent. Our guest again has been Julie Callahan. Julie, where can people read more about your travels?
Julie: I blog about our life in Bratislava, and our current life, we’re living in Budapest, Hungary, at theworldinbetween.com.
Chris: And we were talking a little bit, before we started recording, where the title “The World In Between” comes from.
Julie: I gave that mission to my son. I said, “I want to start a blog and I don’t know what to call it. Think of something. It’s going to be kind of what you do with your life when you leave corporate America.” For the last 32 years, I’ve been a member of corporate America.
In 2015 I plan to retire. Quite a bit too young to retire, but you’ve got this whole kind of life in front of you. You’ve got 20 years, maybe 25 years, where you can do meaningful things. What can those meaningful things be? Before you kind of put on your old-lady shoes and sit on the rocker. Maybe that’s joining the Peace Corps, maybe that’s teaching English in Africa. Maybe that’s living in Albania, I don’t know. Maybe that’s biking across France. I think the sky is kind of the limit. We sold our homes, we’ve sold our cars, we have really no constraints. We’re about to empty our storage unit. I think the world is our oyster. It’s probably that phase of life, people think through, “What am I going to study in college? What do I want to be when I grow up? Etc.,” but you don’t necessarily think of what you’re going to do from the age of 55 to 75. How can you create a life where you can maybe take that early retirement, because you can craft a life that’s a little bit more affordable and maybe a whole lot more interesting.
Chris: Excellent. Well Julie, thanks so much for coming on the show and sharing with us your love for Slovakia.
Julie: Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris: In news this week, I was saddened to hear about the crash of a spaceship belonging to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company. The spaceship crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring the other. This after just a week ago, a second private space company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, lost a rocket in an explosion moments after lift-off. While privatized space flight is still coming, I wouldn’t pack your bags just yet.
I don’t spend a lot of time watching sensational TV News coverage, but I understand there’s been just a little bit of coverage about Ebola and the danger that that may pose. I haven’t been spending a lot of time worrying about it, instead I’ve been busy flying around on those same aircraft that people are talking about. One thing I would not recommend is coughing in the aircraft and then saying to people, “Maybe it’s the Ebola.” That apparently ends up with the aircraft full of people in hazmat suits. Many of you already figured out that would be the result, but apparently one passenger didn’t and that was all documented on a video you can find at Johnny Jet’s site. For links to both those stories, including the video, check out the show notes at amateurtraveler.com.
In the news of the community, I heard from Jim McDonald about the episode that we did recently on Vermont. I spent a lot of time in Vermont on business a couple of years ago. A few things that weren’t mentioned, one, Vermont has a lot of unpaved roads. These roads can become impassable during inclement weather, of which there is a lot. Two, Vermont gets an enormous amount of snow. I grew up in New York City, and went to college in New England, and I had not seen snow in May until I worked in Vermont. Three, when you are in the northeast kingdom you have to be careful about your phone. Cellphone service in Vermont is awful, but it’s good in Canada, and you can find yourself connected to a Canadian cell-tower, and get to pay for international roaming without ever leaving the US. Jim, thanks for pointing those out.
You can also read up a book review that Jim did recently on the website, on dining out in Paris.
I also heard from Alejandra, who is writing to us from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Says,
“I’ve been listening to your podcasts for several months. I think I’ve listened to almost every available episode from Western Europe. Great Job. Well I’m writing to tell you one thing I recently came across here in Buenos Aires, that I don’t think was mentioned in the corresponding episode. Probably because it is a new regulation. I won’t be getting into politics, but the thing is there’s a strict regulation over foreign currencies, specifically, US Dollars. What probably will interest any foreign tourist is that you can buy Argentine Pesos with your US Dollars or Euros. Be careful to check the exchange rate, as it is very volatile over here and there is always someone trying to take advantage. Foreign citizens can’t buy foreign currencies. It’s forbidden by the Argentine version of the IRS. I learned this because my mother lives in Italy and obtained Italian citizenship. On a recent trip she was trying to buy Euros to go back to Italy, and she couldn’t. There’s always a black market for these types of things, specifically as most Argentinians will want to buy your US Dollars, but I don’t recommend that.”
That is good to know. One thing I would recommend is, I generally don’t buy currencies at the currency exchange at airports or banks or anything before I go, and rely on my ATM card working when I get there and that is generally cheaper as there are fewer fees, and better rates.
Remember this episode of Amateur Traveler will be transcribed, and those transcriptions are thanks to JayWay Travel. Jaywaytravel.com, they specialize in Central and Eastern European destinations, so check that out if you’re going some place like Slovakia.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com.
Oh wait! I forgot something. An interesting piece of news, and that is that I’ve been invited to the White House. Seriously, a bunch of travel bloggers. Something like the top 100 travel bloggers have been invited to the White House to take part in a discussion, or I think that means to listen to what the administration plans to do, to promote students traveling abroad. That’ll be happening in December, and I’ll tell you more about that then.
If you have any questions, feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. Or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can find all the notes for this episode in the lyrics. Follow me on twitter @chris2x and as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.