The last time we went to Slovakia (my father, brother, niece, and I, back in 2001) we had a great time meeting lots of new relatives. Since then, 3 years have gone by, and this spring my father decided that he was ready for another trip. So on Wednesday, May 26, we set off for another journey to Slovakia.
My father drove up from Connecticut and left his car in my driveway, and we took a shared van to Logan airport. The van ride was slow, picking people up (and getting lost in) Cambridge and South Boston, but my father enjoyed the tour, especially the Cambridge part, as he hadn't been to Cambridge since my graduation from Radcliffe in 1967. And we weren't too worried, as we'd allowed plenty of extra time. We reached the airport and went through the long lines at the ticket counter and security checkpoints in plenty of time for our 8:30pm flight. I had brought my cell phone, even though it wasn't any use in Europe, and it did prove useful here, as my brother had been delayed on his flight from Moline. (Actually, he hadn't been delayed, but his luggage had missed the connection in Chicago, and he had to wait in a different terminal for his luggage to arrive before he could head over to international departures.) Anyway, it was nice to know, via the cell phone, that he was in Boston, at least.
But he did eventually make it through, luggage and all, and the flight to London was uneventful (the best kind!). As is usual for me, I didn't sleep a wink, in spite of trying hard. We had a long layover in London, and by the time we took the long bus ride between terminals and the long underground ride into town, we ended up with about 3 hours for sightseeing. My father didn't feel up to walking, so he stayed at Heathrow (and found an area with very comfy lounge chairs where he could take a nap). But my brother and I followed his advice for a whirlwind tour of London. (My brother had never been there before, so it was fun to show him stuff.) I luckily had some British currency left over from my trip to the Cotswolds two years ago, and it was enough to pay for our minimal expenses during the tour.
After the long ride on the Underground from Heathrow, we emerged at Piccadilly Circus and walked past Trafalger Square, down Whitehall, past the Horse Guards and 10 Downing Street, to the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben. We walked part way over the bridge there to get a good view, including the London Eye (the giant ferris wheel) which I hadn't seen before. We had time to go into one edifice, so we hit Westminster Cathedral, which had the features of being really, really old, and being full of kings and queens (well, their bodies, anyway) and the coronation chair and other cool stuff. We then walked down along Green Park to Buckingham Palace and past the Royal Mews, and finished by "lifting a pint" at the local pub. (I couldn't bring my brother to London without letting him enjoy some beer.) We hopped back on the underground at Victoria and were back to Heathrow in plenty of time for our afternoon flight to Prague. As whirlwind tours go, it was pretty darn good.
We had a little trouble locating our father, though. The plan was to meet at the departure gate, but at Heathrow they weren't announcing the gate numbers until the absolutely last minute. So it took us a while to connect, but it all worked out in the end.
The flight to Prague was also uneventful, unless you count the strange thing that British Air considered to be our luncheon snack. It was meat and cheese wrapped in some sort of doughy thing, and it was really quite repulsive.
We'd heard bad things about the taxi drivers in Prague tending to gouge the tourists, so we arranged for a shared van again at a flat rate (around $20). This was another incredibly long drive, but again we got a chance to see a lot of the Prague old city in the lovely late-afternoon sun, so we didn't really complain. Prague is city that was hardly touched by WWII, so it is just packed full of glorious old buildings, with many eastern-European-looking turrets and spires. It sits within the curve of a river, and on the far side, Prague Castle crowns the top of a hill. It's really quite a stunning place.
We were really glad we hadn't rented a car at the airport, as the drive through the old city, with its many narrow and one-way streets was quite an experience, and was a lot more fun with someone else driving. (My brother had found that it would be a lot cheaper to rent the car in town than at the airport, and by picking it up just when we were ready to leave, it would save us the trouble of driving and parking in town overnight.)
Our hotel was a bit out from the old city, but it turned out to be conveniently near the Pavlova subway stop and within longish walking distance of Wenceslaus Square, which is the modern center of the city (known in history the site of the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989 - mass popular demonstrations that helped topple the Communist dictatorship.) Nowadays, it's jam-packed with glossy stores and sidewalk cafes, with lots of pedestrian activity.
Our hotel was a pretty bare-bones sort of place (Prague has been "discovered" and is fairly expensive, so we had trouble finding a place that was reasonably-priced and available). We were tired enough that we weren't feeling too fussy. My brother was still up for exploring, however, so I decided to trek along with him. We wanted to scope out how to get to the car rental place so that we wouldn't be too slow in getting going in the morning.
The most complicated part of the trek was trying to find Czech coins for the subway, since at night the ticket booths weren't staffed. But we finally succeeded, and were able to buy 24-hour tickets from the automated ticket machine. The public transportation in Prague was quite inexpensive, and the subways and trans seemed to run very frequently. The stations were very busy in the evening, even on a midweek night, with lots of people out and about and enjoying the town.
Leslie in Prague, with Prague Castle and St. Vitus' Cathedral across the river in the background
We had to go three stops, changing at the Museum and getting out at the Old
Town, very near the river, and with a great view of Prague Castle across the way (photo above). We walked along the river a few blocks, passing
some magnificent buildings, including the Rudolfinum concert hall (photo below).
(I found out later that this was where Dvorak conducted the premiere of his
'New World Symphony' in 1896, and is now the home of the Czech Philharmonic.)
A few blocks further along the river, we found the InterContinental hotel where the car rental was
located. The hotel was a bit of a modern eyesore in an otherwise beautiful old section of
town. On our way back, we tried out a beer hall, finding some seats in the grotto-like basement. So for the first
time in my life, I think, I had beer in two countries in the same day.
I'm usually not much of a beer drinker, but Czech and Slovak beers are
really good. The big beer in Czech Republic is Pilsner Urquell, but there
are also a number of excellent local beers. And in Slovakia, our favorite
is Zlaty Bazant (which means Golden Pheasant).
We also shared a plate of goulash, which was really good, and came with
dumplings and rye bread.
The Rudolfinum Concert Hall, home of the Czech Philharmonic
When we emerged from the cellar, we discovered that night had finally fallen. The river view was really gorgeous at night, with the castle and many of the old buildings on the hill across the river bathed in lights. We walked partway across the cobblestoned Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), a 14th century pedestrian bridge lined with status of saints, and enjoyed the music and generally festive atmosphere before heading back to the hotel and an exhausted sleep.
The car we were renting was a Czech auto, a Skoka Superb, which is the top of the line Skoda model, probably a bit larger than the average European car. It was very comfortable to ride in and drive, but we were still a bit crowded for trunk space once we loaded in all of our suitcases. Throughout the trip, many people commented on our car and asked us how we liked it. .
Surprisingly, we had no trouble driving back to our hotel, since we didn't have to drive through the old town to get there. The only complication was that it was on a narrow one-way street and had no place pull over for loading and unloading luggage. So I had Dick drop me off on the corner as he went to circle around the block, and I rushed to try to get Dad and our suitcases out on the sidewalk before he came around again. (Luckily, someone decided to pull out just as he came by, so he was able to park long enough for us to load up.) The hotel was right near the correct highway we needed to take out of town, so once we were loaded up, we were golden.
I'm not sure how long it is in miles or kilometers, but the drive to Slovakia took longer than my father had anticipated. The first part was along a modern superhighway, but later, when we got into eastern Czech Republic, we got onto two-lane country roads and once or twice made wrong turns. There was one time when we were totally fouled up and stopped to ask for directions. Of course, we could find no one who spoke English, but we found one couple who were willing to try to help us. The man went into this long convoluted explanation we couldn't follow, but the lady was a lot more helpful. She pointed down the road and said "jeden kilometer" (one kilometer), "most" (and made a motion showing the shape of a bridge), and "pravo" (right). So we drove down the road 1 kilometer, saw a bridge, turned right, and were back on track! I wish I could tell her she was right on target. (And I learned a new word: "most".)
Most of the Czech Republic was fairly flat or rolling farmland, but as we got closer to the border with Slovakia, the land got more mountainous. Unfortunately, it was also starting to rain as we passed the most spectacular scenery, but it was still quite lovely.
We crossed the border on a small road high up in the mountains. There was a very minimal security check, maybe because the Czech Republic and Slovakia recently joined the European Union, and we were waved on through. We stopped at the first gas station to try to buy the sticker that you need to have to travel on Slovak highways (the rental car had come with only the Czech sticker), but after some confusion, we realized that he was telling us that he was out of stickers (he pointed to the empty slot where they would have been if he'd had them). He gave us a note for the police saying that we had tried to buy one. I have no idea whether that would actually carry any weight, but as it turned out, we luckily didn't get stopped this time.
We were getting hungry, so when we descended the mountains to the Vah river valley and the town of Trencin in Slovakia, we stopped at a roadside place to get some lunch. The menu was entirely in Slovak, and even though I had a small dictionary with me, we couldn't find a lot of the words, so we ended up ordering goulash again, figuring it would be safe.
We also tried to find a phone so we could call Paula, our intrepid translator, who was waiting for us to arrive at a house on the outskirts of Poprad. There was no public phone, but a nice man let my father use his cell phone, but no one answered at the house.
The rest of the drive was familiar from our previous trips, when we'd driven from Vienna via Bratislava. We went up the broad Vah River valley, then turned sharply east, going through some lovely deep valleys in the hills, past a couple of industrial towns, and eventually seeing the beautiful Tatra mountains ahead to th north. We passed by Poprad, at the base of the mountains, and went another few miles to the small town of Janovce.
My father had located the first set of relatives on his mother's side in this town. He knew that his great aunt Maria Tabak had married a Michael Katrenic in 1878, so he started by looking for the name Katrenic in telephone directories he found on the internet. He'd located this family and had asked Paula to do some research. She found that the Michel Katrenic mentioned above was this man's grandfather, which makes him my father's second cousin on his mother's side. So he had arranged that we would visit them on the evening we arrived in Slovakia, and Paula would be waiting there for us. She had described the location of the house, which was on the main road, and said that she would put an American flag in front of the house to mark which one it was.
So of course, we whizzed right by it the first time past (it was a small American flag), but the village was small, and when we looped back, my brother spotted the flag right away. The house was very nice, with a pretty front yard full of fruit trees, and Stefan and Daniela were lovely, welcoming people. We apologized for arriving later than expected, and they served us big plates of food and plied us with drinks. Then Dad brought out his genealogical charts, and showed Stefan exactly how we were related.
Stefan Katrenic, my Dad, Daniela Katrenic, my brother Dick, and me. And do we look jet-lagged?
We were still pretty tired from the trip, and hadn't yet checked into our hotel, so after a few hours we started trying to leave. But it turned out they had another surprise for us. They both, along with their children, were quite accomplished musicians, and they had made a tape especially for us of Slovak folk songs. I believe this had been instigated by Paula, who firmly believes that the best way to learn a language is to learn to sing it, so for each verse, she had them recite the lyrics first and then sing the song. It was very lovely, and we enjoyed hearing it, but after that we really had to leave. They didn't want us to go, and wanted to know why we didn't stay with them instead of going to a hotel. We promised to visit them once again before we left Slovakia for good.
After the obligatory posing for family photos, we took Paula back to Poprad, and then went on to Levoca, where we had yet another adventure trying to check into our pension where the desk clerk was a young man who did not speak English. Even though we had a reservation, he didn't seem to be expecting us, and it took a while to get through the paperwork. But luckily they had a lot of empty rooms and he pretty much gave us our choice. Since the penzion was right on the main square of Levoca, we tried to find out if it was okay to park the car in front, and he seemed to indicate that it was. He also asked us to specify what time we wanted breakfast and to select from a menu of about a dozen various choices (luckily, they had an English version of the menu available). My father picked ham and eggs and settled into that for every morning. I alternated between corn flakes with fruit or yogurt with muesli most mornings, with the occasional scrambled eggs. And my brother had a deliberate plan of trying a different breakfast every day, and had worked his way through the full menu by the time we left.
The place was shiny and new - much nicer than the hotels we'd stayed at on our previous trips. The rooms were arranged in little suites, with a shared living room and bath, and a small kitchenette. Each room had a TV and an internet connection (too bad I didn't have a laptop) and comfy beds. I was very happy to settle in for a good night's sleep.