Slovakia and Warsaw C 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

June 26th

Total chaos at the Prague train station! First, construction reduced the passageway to the platforms to a single narrow lane. This would be OK if the information tables showing train departures and arrivals wasn't right by by the work zone. There are many delayed trains. People exiting the trains have to fight their way through the hordes of folks parked by the information table waiting for updates on their line. It's 10:00 and still no announcement about our 10:06 train. It finally comes, with departure at rail 4. We run to catch, only to find no train at that track. Then some people notice that the the train at rail 5 says Warsaw. We dash to catch it, barely finding a seat. We are next to some Asians with a really bad b.o. Still, we are lucky as many people have to sit in the alleway. We find out that our car is going to Warzsaw and we will need to switch cars in Ostrava. Given that I speak the language and still had a hard time navigating, I feel really bad for the foreigners. The train got to Banská Bystrica 50 minutes late. We learn that the delay was caused by the storm from the previous day. The storm soaked us on the way back to the hostel, but it also brought down trees onto tracks. The ride through Slovakia was really pretty. There are so many hills here with little villages. I really miss this place. Leslie later commented that she has never seen me so content as in Slovakia. It's my home, after all. Most of the ride was through a forest with something like 10 tunnels. It started raining and was pouring pretty had by the time we got to my hometown. In Slovakia we ended up sharing the coupe with a gypsie family. Leslie's first!

Dad was waiting. He took us to a pharmacy for Leslie's allergy pills. Right away, we left for Dačov Lom, a little run down village some 60 miles south of my hometown. This is where my grandma Terka used to live. I was afraid this will be a pretty shocking experience for Leslie and I was definitely right. It started with my grandma serving us noodles with liver. Liver isn't quite "appreciated" by many Americans, with Leslie being one of them. And then there is the strange bathroom with the valve to turn on water and a bathtub with no sink. It was dark by the time we made it to the guest room. There Leslie got quite taken back by the kitchen for midgets and various things hanging from the ceiling beam (fertility corn!). There was also this creepy doll looking over the bed. It was like something from that Seinfeld episode, where George's girlfriend has a doll that looks very much like his mom. Leslie crawled under the sheets and needed a lot of hugs & kisses to calm down. I think she figured that all of Slovakia is like my grandma's and was horrified she will be spending the next 4 days on the set of Borat.

Liptovský Hrad, I believe

June 27th

In the morning, we walked out to find a male duck sitting on a pole. I wasn't sure if it was real since it wasn't moving. Leslie started making fun of me for even thinking that it was real, when suddenly the duck moved. There was also a lot of cats by front door. Four grown ones and about 6 kittens. Breakfast was bread in eggs, sausages and bacon. And turkish coffee. This is how coffee is drunk in Slovakia. Hot water is poured over the grinds which then settle to the bottom. After breakfast we played with ducklings. Leslie tried to push them while they were in a little pond but they knew what was up. That was really cute! We then picked cherries and walked up a hill overlooking the village. It was absolutely peaceful up here, nothing but bees buzzing by. We had baked buchty and also "buchty na pare" (steamed buchty) for lunch. These were served along with fried schnitzels and chicken soup. We then took a nap until dad came around 3:30. We then went to Rimavska Sobota. This is where my aunt Soňa and my other grandma Pavka live.

On the way we stopped at the castle Modrý Kameň but it was already closed. We picked up Soňa. Dad unsuccessfully tried to offer my aunt this mop with a bucket - for about 30 minutes. It was very humorous to watch. We then took another elevator ride up my other grandma's apartment. Leslie didn't enjoy the tiny european elevators with no doors a bit! At Pavka's we took a bunch of pictures. This was Leslie's first panelák, a pre-fab panel apartment building. We stayed for snacks - ham, eggs, cheese, peppers, and went back. We were planning on going to Klenovec for a folk festival but it was already too late by the time we left. On the way back back, dad took us on a twisty back road through the woods. We got back to Banská Bystrica around 10:15pm. Leslie showered and we then got dropped off in the city center.

There we met my sister Petra. She took us to Ponorka Club (the Submarine), where she had been hanging out with her friends. A cup on their table told the story of the night. It was full of orange wedges. Each corresponded to a Fernet stock Petra and her friends have already put behind them. Fernet Stock is a a bitter popular in Slovakia - herbal liqour. We had a lot of catching up to do! We went through borovička, becherovka, Fernet, tatranský rum, and of course, slivovica. That last one kind of did Leslie in. We also had beer. In the mean time, Petra disappeared. We went looking for her after several hours of absence and found her discussing "things" with her boyfriend of 6 years, Pato. Ex-boyfriend that is. They broke up about a week ago prior to our arrival. She missed a contest where whoever striped off the most clothing won a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, guys were not excluded! A pair of girls only got to their underwear when a rather fat guy had the brilliant idea to go totally nude. Later Leslie and Peťa danced on tables. We spent only about 400sk: 300 for drinks and 100 for the taxi back. This is only about 20 dollars. (Slovakia no longer uses the crown. In 2009 the country switched to the Euro.)

At my grandma's house in Dolný Kubín.

I also went cherry picking.

View back at the village. Leslie sitting on a ski lift. It was really peaceful up there.

Some of my grandma's goodies: french toast and fried spekacky, and then later her awesome chicken noodle soup.

Homemade buchty and preserve-filled steamed dumplings

Fried pork schnitzel or rezeň

Here is the kitchen in the guesthouse. My grandma is pretty short and it shows. Also the bedroom where we stayed.

Old-school swings at my aunt's in Rimavská Sobota. Family portrait with dad and grandma.

Kofola, a communist attempt to replicate Coca Cola. It tastes nothing like Coke, but it's delicious. Leslie disagreed.

We had ton of fun that night in the club Ponorka (Submarine).

June 28th

We had a pretty bad hangover so we took it slow and went to Kúpalisko. Kúpalisko is a large outdoor swimming pool in Banská Bystrica. I spent many summers here! There we had langoš, hot dogs and french fries. We went in the water once but it was quite cold. Today was sunny, with only the occasional cloud. Military jets flew over head few times. Only later we found out that today was the "Day of the Police", Deň Policajtov and these jets were part of the show. We left at 5pm, walked back through Europa, the new shopping mall built below the town square, getting apples, limes and snacks in the grocery store. Through the town square we walked down to a large memorial commemorating the Slovak National Uprising (SNP). Just as we got to SNP, we witnessed police paratroopers landing right in front of us. There was also a mock car chase which involved the bad guy getting pulled out the car by dogs. It was pretty neat! Unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me. We worried it may get stolen at the pool, and not wanting to risk it, we left all valuables back home. For dinner we went to Koliba u Krištofa, a traditional Slovak restaurant on the way to the Donovaly ski resort. Dad was rather pissed to find the parking lot full of tour buses when he cannot even find a cook to work in his restaurant. We ate soup - fazuľová and kapustnica, 3x halušky with zakysanka, sour milk. Leslie said that their kapustnica tasted a lot like mine. Yay!

Koliba u Krištofa, a popular traditional Slovak restaurant on the way to Donovaly, a ski area above Banská Bystrica.

Leslie with a waiter wearing the traditional Slovak outfit called kroj.

Kapustnica (sauerkraut soup) and bryndzové halušky, potato dumplings with special sheep cheese. These are very typical Slovak dishes.

June 29th

Today we slept in again and then went to the train station. The train I wanted to take leaving at 5am and arriving in Warzsaw at ~16:30 was already fully sold out. In fact, there were no seats on this line available until July 9th! All cars were reserve so we would have to stand. So instead we got tickets for a train through Ostrava, leaving at 8:02. This one gets to Warzsaw at the same time, but we have only 12 minutes to connect. This would be fine, but I was little skeptical given the delays on the previous 2 trains. First the strike, then the storm. Dad took us to Petra's. She was still in bed. The paneláks are being redone, with new insulation being put in. This covered the cracks, and combined with fresh paint, makes them look quite modern - and not very much communist. There are so many new houses in B.B. Above kúpalisko is a new residential complex. Also, what used to be a parking lot by my old apartment at Stará Nemocnica is now an apartment tower. And of course, the Europa tower is complete. Petra's mom Blažka served us chicken soup (good but not as good as my grandma's), chicken with potatoes, lettuce and rice, and also cakes from a wedding. Petra then took us downtown for a beer, Urpíner. This local brew is named after a peak overlooking the city, and is now supposedly served by Playboy. We also went in the Stredoslovenské Museum (Central Slovak Museum) in Thurzo's House. Later we went with dad and his friend Jana to a salaš. Salaš is the Slovak name for a hut where sheep shepherds live and also produced various milk products. Of these, the two most important ones are oštiepok, smoked cheese, and žinčica, sour milk.

Dad though we were going to a rustic place, but since his last visit it has been converted to a very nice hotel and a restaurant (Fergov Dvor). The Salas was in the back. Žinčica is traditionally drunk from a handcarved wooden mug called črpák. Dad managed to grab one that had a lose handle and we ended up with this less-than-pleasantly smelling liquid all over our pants, shirts and shoes. Our freshly washed pants. Leslie and I also walked up to the sheep, just before the shepherd released them. Back home we packed and watched the Euro final (Dad & I) - Germany vs. Spain, which Spain dominated. Later we went to Tesco, most largest department store chain in Slovakia. I wanted to buy treska, a special fish salad. But we got sidetracked buying other snacks and completely forgot to buy what we came for. Brano, my sister's brother (no, not my brother) freaked out Leslie by giving her a goodbye kiss. This is completely customary but I also have a hard time kissing people when I visit Slovakia. I've lived in the States too long to part with the handshake!

The apartment building where I briefly lived as a kid, and where my sister's family lives now. Leslie got a kick out of the Slovak mini-elevators.

View from the panelák towards the center of town.

At the Church of Assumption of Virgin Mary in Banská Bystrica (3D view)

The very beautiful town square. Left picture shows the plague column and the Kapitulský Church

At a salaš, place where shepherds make sheep cheese and a special sour milk drink called žinčica.

It's drunk from these wooden mugs called črpák. Unfortunately the one that my dad picked up had a loose handle and the "lovely" smelling milk spilled all over my freshly washed shorts...

This is how oštiepky (smoked cheeses) are made

And the sheep that gave the milk for the cheese.

June 30th

We are on the 8am train in a regular section because compartments are completely full. Across me is an older lady giving me history lessons. The conductor is the same young guy from Prague train. Today he is wearing ankle long shorts and a t-shirt from some music festival. Completely informal! We only had 12 minutes for the transfer in Ostrava-Svinow, but our train (Slovak) was on time but the Czech one was running 10 minutes late. So it worked out great! Seat reservation on the next train is in a compartment full of Poles. There is a snack cart that comes through the aisle periodically. Leslie got a kick out of it because it reminded her of Harry Potter. Southern Poland (Katowice) is pretty dumpy. Later we went through a lot of nothing. Pretty flat with forests. Warsaw station is a madhouse with a huge underground city and no clear direction which way to go (Hostel directions had us going to "Old Town" but there are only signs for "striedmesto" - center). However, it houses unexplainably way too many stores selling protein-powder and other body building supplements. At first we took a wrong exit. As soon as we got above ground we were approached by some bums. A nasty homeless-looking girl came running at Leslie shouting "let me help you, let me help you!", while touching her on the shoulder. Perhaps she also tried to reach her pockets. It happened very fast and ended with her boyfriend (?) coming and telling her to go away. We were quite shocked by this but at least we didn't get anything stolen. Perhaps the protein powders are to help one fend off the bums. Finding the hostel was easy after we took the right exit. We are staying at Oki Doki.

The hostel is much like Wombat. Bar, breakfast, multiple floors, several bunks per room. We are staying in Lenin-themed "communist" room. We next walked to Old Town. Most of Warsaw was pretty dumpy but the center had many nice buildings. Warzsaw has a very mixed architecture. New, 30+ story modern skyscrapers compete for space with old communist buildings and the humangous Stalinist Palace of Culture. Old town has the old city hall, bridge over the moat and few other historical buildings. However, much of the city was rebuilt after the War. The 1944 uprising against Nazis backfired, resulting in the death of some 200k Poles. As punishment, Hitler order the city to be razed to the ground. Some 85% of the city was destroyed. We went up a lookout tower and had dinner in a pierogi restaurant. Leslie had a sweet mix and I had the meat platter - a really bad and nasty choice! We also had zurst soup. It was quite good. We drank Carlsberg beer. It tasted much like Bud Light. I noticed that a lot of pubs advertised Pilsner Urquell, so perhaps Polish beer isn't all that good. While we were eating, a group of musicians started playing outside the restaurant. After they finished, they came in and started demanding money from everybody inside! That was really ridiculous and pissed me off. Although I did enjoy their playing, we did not request this in any way. I argued with them back and forth for a while. The waitstaff did not seem to mind this extortion at all. I no longer remember if we gave them money in the end. On the way back to the hostel, we stopped for ice cream (apple and taffy) and lattes. Soon after we almost witnessed a knife fight. The guy holding the knife was also holding an ice cream cone in his other hand which made the whole scene quite humorous. Girl from Tennessee and 3 Brits (2F/1M) are sharing the room with us.

On the train to Warsaw

Our room in the Oki Doki. We were given Room #3, the Communist Room.

Downtown Warsaw

Some bum and a lady selling flowers

The restaurant where we tried some tasty and some not-so-tasty pierogi. The band that came in to demand our money can be seen outside.

More pretty Warsaw shots

The castle wall

And more shots at the wall

The Square

View of the city from the observation platform

The Palace of Culture, a great example of Stalinist architecture