Now I’m really going to date myself here but I still feel weird saying “Slovakia” and “The Czech Republic,” instead of just “Czechoslovakia.” It was Czechoslovakia when I was living in Europe as a kid; but the country split (for a second time) into two countries peacefully in 1993. Just don’t accidentally refer to their country as “Slovenia.” They don’t like that very much. If you don’t believe me, just ask one of our former Presidents and another country’s Prime Minister (I won’t name any names) 🙂
The High Tatras, Slovakia
We were ready for a break from touring cities and museums. Hiking through the majestic High Tatras Mountains of Slovakia sounded like just the thing. Plus, we definitely still need to burn more calories after the 15 and 10 pounds Bryan and I put on during our six weeks in the U.S. (Isn’t that a World Record or something!?!) After a few hours into our hike, we figured out what the “heavy difficulty” category meant for hiking in Slovakia. They should have just said in our hiking guide that we will be scaling our way up the side of giant cliffs with nothing but a few crevices and a rickety, old chain to help us. We thought we were pretty pro-hikers after hiking the Inca Trail, Patagonia, and through Chapada Diamantina. My “near-death” experience in Chapada was a cake-walk compared to this. I like heights but I don’t like trusting my own life to my big, klutzy foot on a tiny rock crevice; or my shaking hands clutching a rusty chain. I was shaking so bad that I had to make myself relax. And I’m not being a drama queen here, Bryan said there’s no doubt we would have died if we’d fallen. (I know our Moms are freaking out now after reading this 🙂 ). When we could take our eyes off the path, the scenery was gorgeous – it reminded me of Patagonia but greener. In the higher areas there was still snow and ice – strange to see in August in Europe. After 9 hours of climbing cliffs and jumping through rocky paths, I was sore and relieved to be finished. I’m really proud of both of us for finishing the hike but I’m not sure I want to do that again. 🙂
A couple hours from Stary Smokovec we visited Spiš Castle. It’s one of the largest castles in Europe. Now its mostly ruins but it still is a beautiful and imposing sight over the peaceful town of Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia.
From the Tatras region, I had my first night-train experience on our way to Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. Bryan took many night-trains in ’99 and 2000 when he was “studying” abroad in Sweden. We spent extra to get a sleeper cabin on the night-train but it was well worth the money. The cabin was like a teeny, tiny hotel room with a bunk-bed and a sink. The car attendant even brought us coffee and tea in the morning. We woke up refreshed and ready to spend a day in Bratislava. The best way to get to know a city in a short period of time when you are traveling is by taking a “free walking tour.” We’ve mentioned these before in our South America blogs when we took a few. We’ve taken so many free walking tours in Europe this last month that we’ve lost track. You can find out about them from your hostel or just by googling online. They are free but if you are satisfied with your tour you are expected to tip. The tour guides usually do a great job of explaining the city’s history and present, and are always happy to give recommendations of places to eat or whatever you need. With only 8 hours to see Bratislava, we were able to catch a free walking tour.
I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of cathedrals over the last 7 months, but St. Elizabeth’s Church in Bratislava is my favorite. The Art Nouveau style of the church makes it so different than other churches. It’s affectionately referred to as the Blue Church, the Smurf Church, or the Cake Church. It looks like a big light-blue wedding cake with its soft edges. The locals love their Blue Church – there is a long waiting list to get married there. Another unique and unexpected landmark in Bratislava is the Novy Most (“New Bridge”), also known as the UFO Bridge. Unlike the Blue Church, the UFO Bridge is not so liked by the locals. Its an asymmetrical, modern-looking bridge described as having a UFO speared by a twig. There are even large, green aliens chilling on the UFO. It’s pretty odd to see a view of Bratislava with its large stately castle on one side of the Danube River, and a UFO bridge with big aliens directly across. Another bridge in Bratislava didn’t have a name so the government allowed the citizens of Bratislava to vote to name their bridge whatever they like. By an overwhelming 80%, they voted to name it the “Chuck Norris Bridge.” The government said that was fine, whatever the people want. In a few months the bridge will be officially named, so we’ll see if it really happens!
On a deeper note, Bratislava is also the site were the Velvet Revolution began (although many people incorrectly think it began in Prague). The Velvet Revolution was the revolution that led to the collapse of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. Our city tour guide made me think of the Fall of Communism from a different perspective though. Of course it was a positive thing that Czechoslovakia was no longer under Czech Stalinism and was becoming a Parliamentary Republic. But what about the older residents who had lived under Communism for most of their lives? They had no savings, could no longer work due to their age, and could no longer depend on the Communist System to provide them with a place to live or the other things they needed. Tragically, for them, their world was turned upside down with the Fall of Communism. I had never thought of this part of history from that perspective.
Yesterday we were in Slovakia. Today we are in Austria and tonight we’ll be in Hungary. One of the many things I love about traveling through Europe is that things never get dull. You can move through the countries quickly (if you want to). Each new country brings new culture, language, and food, so you never know what to expect. From the capital city of Bratislava, Slovakia, it’s only an hour to Vienna, Austria. I’ve always loved Austria but I wasn’t as smitten with Vienna as I was with Innsbruck and Salzburg. This is probably because Vienna isn’t surrounded by the Alps and because last time I was in Austria I was a kid so I wasn’t paying attention to prices. 🙂 Austria is pricey! It’s not exactly the best backpacker destination because even following a modest backpacker lifestyle, things add up quick.
The enormous, elegant summer palace of Schonbrunn is definitely worth of a visit (if you get there early in the morning before the crowds). We enjoyed an audio tour of the opulent Schonbrunn Palace – the 1,441-room summer home of the Habsburg family. It wasn’t uncommon for imperial families to have as many as 16 children. Some of the children didn’t survive so they needed an heir and several spares. Maybe that’s why they needed a summer home with 1,441 rooms. The Schonbrunn Palace is just one of their multiple homes. With my Psychology degree, I also had to visit the Freud Museum (his former home and office). The ticket prices make you think twice about everywhere you want to visit. And as an unemployed backpacker, forget about enjoying Vienna’s dining and shopping! The center is filled with the priciest stores you can imagine – I’ve never seen so many Rolexes for sale.
So with a taste of beautiful Vienna, Austria and our daily budget blown, it’s time to take a 3-hour bus to one of Bryan’s favorite cities – Budapest, Hungary.
Info for Fellow Travelers:
It was difficult to find information on hiking and traveling in the High Tatras of Slovakia, as well as visiting the Spiš Castle in Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia. These sites aren’t part of the most traveled Europe route. I’d like to pass on some helpful hints for fellow travelers looking to visit these places.
Stary Smokovec, Slovakia
If you are a serious hiker/rock climber and looking for a challenge, you can try out the “heavy difficulty” hiking trails. If not, there are tons of hiking paths in the area – something for every level. There isn’t a whole lot of information on where you should stay or go to hike the High Tatras in Slovakia, but I was pleased with the plan we came up with. We took a bus from Zakopane, Poland to Stary Smokovec, Slovakia (less than one hour). You can also reach Stary Smokovec through the transportation-hub of Poprad (I wouldn’t recommend spending much time in Poprad, it’s pretty dull). But Stary Smokovec is as cute of a town as the name is. From the town of Stary Smokovec you can walk from your hotel right to the hiking paths. If accommodations are full, check out the big green Hotel Tatrys by the train station. They have plenty of comfortable, affordable rooms. This region is also said to offer cheap skiing in the winter. We were thinking of going to Zakopane, Poland to hike but we’re really glad we decided to go to Stary Smokovec, Slovakia instead. We spent a few hours in Zakopane waiting for our bus and it was so touristy. There were huge crowds of people and cheesy stores – it’s like a beach boardwalk in the middle of the mountains. On the other hand, we found Stary Smokovec to be extremely serene and enjoyable.
Spiš Castle (Spišské Podhradie, Slovakia)
Many other travelers we met had no idea how to visit this castle, even though they wanted to. Some people told us you absolutely had to rent a car if you wanted to visit the castle. This isn’t true. From Poprad, Slovakia we took a bus to Spišské Podhradie (it only took an hour and a half). The castle overlooks the town of Spišské Podhradie and it takes about 45 minutes to walk up the hill to the castle.
Safe, Happy Travels! 🙂