Košice

This is the second destination of 6 on the Western Slavic Countries itinerary as described in that post.

We got a late start out of Bratislava because of two reasons: It was apparently our Uber driver’s first time picking up a customer. He drove by us several times and after the third time I had to actually chase him down on foot leaving the luggage with my wife. Had it not been for that, we might still be waiting there. The second reason was that we were picking up our vehicle at a Sixt satellite office in the city. They were expecting us at noon but we showed up just before 10:30. This location was used by appointment only, and was not otherwise staffed, so we had to wait. There was a happy ending, as they upgraded me to a BMW 5 series with the M package.

 

We had a fabulous drive to Ruzomberok, our stop-over point en route to Košice. We stopped for lunch at at Salas Krajinka, a working sheep farm that had a restaurant on the property. Very interesting combination. However, the food was pretty good and the scenery was unexpected. The place was packed with people, as it turns out this is a restaurant that is sought out by people driving from Bratislava eastward as a stop-over, and it was well patronized. Lots of details on the experience at the restaurant in the food scene section.

 

Arrival

We had driven some beautiful undulating landscape with the Tatra mountains as a backdrop. On the road we could see the remnants of the post communist era construction visible as we approached villages and towns of any size. These old communist era construction apartment blocks – gray, unadorned, very basic, were modern-day eyesores. I thought that as I drove further east and away from Bratislava that I would see less and less of them, but this didn’t turn out to be the case. As we approached Košice, we noticed the eyesores again. Apparently, they are ubiquitous in the Slovak Republic. So, as we entered the city and worked our way towards our apartment, we traveled into the center of town and the landscape changed dramatically. We found a beautiful old part of town with interesting and well preserved architecture, where the pace and the scenery were different than the outskirts.

 

Settling in

Our apartment was in exceptional condition. Everything was new, well decorated, and in the very central part of this very small old town. The old town looked like it could have been walked completely end to end, and probably hit every every cross street, in under an hour.

This particular apartment rental was done through Airbnb which is not typical for me. For reasons discussed previously, in a blog that I’ll eventually post separately, I don’t often book through Airbnb. However this was the best option and I knew exactly what I was getting, which is the main issue with Airbnb. They don’t allow you to do a Street View. They don’t allow you to see the physical location of the apartment. The lack of transparency on location is unacceptable, because location is such a significant ingredient in the formula for having an immersive experience. Our hostess met us and showed us around the apartment, gave restaurant, and sightseeing recommendations, and helped us to get settled in. We had a stroll around town just stretching our legs after the long drive. We eventually found an interesting place to have a non-lumberjack meal. The Slovak cuisine is highly focused on meat and very hearty at that. So our second seafood meal of the trip was very welcome. Way more detail on this fabulous restaurant can be found in the Food Scene section below

 

Discovery trek

Košice Stare Mesto should be properly called the pastel old town. The buildings were varied pastel colors throughout the old town, by design, and with a consistent architectural approach. It appealed to the eye. It was a lovely little town to stroll around at a relaxed pace. There was a delightful park that was placed down the center of  town. It was filled with flowers, grass, trees, monuments, fountains where children splashed, and an abundance of park benches where mothers sat watching their children play while others enjoyed their ice cream in the warm sunshine. It was an idyllic scene and epitomized the slower pace of life there. The city was mostly locals with a light tourist presence, which made it seem custom ordered for an off the beaten path immersive experience. I had a great couple of days in Košice, with the car remaining parked the entire time, and all exploration accomplished on foot.

 

Food Scene

Salas Krajinka

Chicken noodle soup with meat and veggies (just like mom’s), sauerkraut soup with pork sausage, potato Perogies with bacon and sheep cheese on the side, sheepshank with grilled onion and green beans, potato dumplings with cabbage. The lamb shank was fall off the bone tender, served in a light brown gravy – neutral tasting. The potato dumplings were well spiced with sweet paprika, so much that it looked like a light tomato sauce, and they snuck in another round little pepper, red this time, that laid waste to my taste buds. The pirogies were tender with a mild flavor, surprisingly, and the sheep cheese not as strong and salty like what we tried in Bratislava. The bacon, however was on the salty side, and very smokey – complementary combination of flavors. All very filling, like lumberjack food.

 

Pan Ryba

Carpaccio of Octopus with aioli and sepia mayo, grilled sea bream, grilled calamari, spinach mashed potatoes and spicy tomato sauce. The bream was grilled to perfection with crispy skin, and moist, flaky flesh. The carpaccio had a delicate flavor, and the sepia infused mayonnaise gave it just a little kick. The grilled calamari was tender, over a fresh tangy tomato sauce – but not spicy as advertised. Everything was very fresh and well prepared. Service was excellent. And what great value at 26 euro all in.

 

Golem Pub

Peasant’s Dream – pork, chicken, sausage, bacon, mustard, horseradish, and chilis, French fries, cucumber salad. Classic traditional Slovak fare, and nobody speaks English. Can’t get any more local. We popped in to escape the sudden downpour and decided to give it a try for lunch. We were encouraged by the lack of English.

 

Pan Ryba – Part Deux

Seafood soup, grilled sea bass, fillet of cod baked in paper, green salad. We really wanted to eat light, and also wanted seafood. There are few choices in town, and we knew the quality here was great from our earlier experience. The cod was tender and flaky. Not a large portion, but a good combination of ingredients, and very tasty. The sea bass was just a tad over-grilled, very crispy on the outside, but because it’s less oily than most fish, it can dry out easier as well. Still good, though – and I’m a tough grader.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Košice. A beautiful, charming, and very compact old town – much less touristed than most parts of Europe I’ve visited. I spent a very enjoyable 2 days relaxing, and being a local. This was a very immersive experience, and a memorable destination.

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Bratislava

This is the first of six destinations as laid out in the Central Europe Trip post. The big picture difference between a Trip and Destination post is that the former is about conception and planning, while the latter is about execution and being there.

It is in the nature of things for plans to not work out as laid out in the schemer’s mind. From an adage like Murphy’s Law, to the “Best laid plans of mice and men,” I am reminded that random events deviate us from our best intentions. And out of the swirling chaos that is Heathrow Airport, British Airways experienced multiple failures in their computer systems effectively shutting down their global operations while we were waiting to connect to Vienna from London. Brilliant. And so we had a 6 hour delay inserted into the schedule getting us off to a late start. This news story highlights the catastrophe, and to be honest, we were lucky as we were only delayed by six hours. Most flights were delayed twice that, or rescheduled for the following day.

I have no more control over airline operations than I have over the weather. The difference is that for the weather I can bring an umbrella and have some sense of recourse, while for airline issues I can only bring a good attitude and hope for the best.

 

Arrival

The 2 hour flight from London to Vienna was uneventful after the long wait due to BA’s computer snafu. The English flight staff were more apologetic than usual for the delay-imposed inconvenience. And passport control was a breeze in Vienna, with well organized short queues which moved quickly.

I was glad to have bypassed any further public transportation to get to central Bratislava, as I’d had enough delays for 1 day. It was a quick 40 minute Uber ride to get to the center of town from the Vienna airport. Our Uber driver was sitting proudly behind the wheel of a new Mercedes E class. He shared with me during our German-efficient introductory conversation that his new Benz had only 3,000 KMs on the odometer. It actually was a nice ride, as the vehicle handled the road competently. But the driver never really tested the vehicle’s capabilities, keeping to the speed limit the entire way. What’s the German word for “pussy?”

 

I was relaxing and taking in the scenery on our drive to the city center. There was an interesting contrast between the countryside in Austria and Slovakia. The Austrians had wind turbines everywhere, scattered across the farmland – spinning slowly, producing that good green electricity. And in The Slovak Republic, the countryside was left onto itself, rolling, pastoral, and green. Did the Slovaks lack the economic means to stand up the wind turbines like the Austrians? Whatever the explanation, the contrast at the border was noticeable.

As we entered the outskirts of the city, I couldn’t help but notice row after row of large, gray Soviet era big block apartment buildings. Function without aesthetic appeal, the legacy of the socialist hive-mind thinking all over former communist Europe. It contrasts so well with the beautiful old architecture of the pedestrian-only center of the city,

 

Settling in

Our apartment was located on Biella street just 50 paces or so from Michael’s gate. It was situated in the northernmost part of the old town in a 500 year old building, very conveniently located to access the compact, scenic old town of Bratislava. The apartment was spacious with 10 foot ceilings and large windows which let in a good breeze when opened. It was comfortable with a spartan decor, a theme that would play out for most of our apartment rentals on this trip. There was minimal street noise considering the central location, and pedestrian traffic.  On the downside, the apartment did not have AC, a necessary compromise when renting in a 500 year old building, and another repeating theme on this trip.  The apartment was well ventilated, and a fan was available, so no hardship was endured without the AC. I would both recommend and re-book this property.

 

Discovery trek

We essentially did two discovery treks, the first was in the historic, pedestrian-only old town.

The capital of The Slovak Republic is pleasantly under-touristed, and less densely populated than most European capitals I’ve had the pleasure to visit. It is situated on the Danube river, at a crossroads of Central Europe, within driving distance of Vienna, and Budapest – both of which have much more international recognition than Bratislava. Most of the highlights of this Central European treasure are within or near its compact old town, or “Stare Mesto.” There is no grand scheme necessary to see all there is in Bratislava, Google Maps are unneeded as well. I used the tried and true technique of wandering around on foot from one interesting thing to the next, finding good food and drink as I went.  Best discovery technique ever, and fun too.

 

On a recommendation from a couple we met on the Bratislava Food Tour, we did a discovery trek to Lake Drazdiak the following day – a local spot for urban water recreation, surrounded by the old Soviet-era apartment blocks. It was a meandering 6 kilometer walk to the lake, crossing the Danube from the old town, and a vast array of monolithic, communist-era block apartments as we went.  The Soviet housing was a somber contrast to the elegant, historic architecture of the old town. The locals did what they could to make the communist relics more appealing. They were painted with color schemes that appeared to disguise, or soften the hard angles of the basic, functional Russian designs. There was a completely different vibe walking through this part of town. I didn’t feel unsafe in any way, I just didn’t feel comfortable, and I didn’t want to linger.

We followed a path along a canal to the lake, which was well used by many locals for exercise and strolling on the Monday morning in late May when we were there. Once we arrived at the lake, we continued our long walk by circumnavigating it. We stopped for lunch at a lovely, rustic restaurant on the lake shore, as described in the Food Scene section. The lake experience truly was immersive, as we were among only locals. We were the only English speakers within earshot at any given point, which is my measure of success.

 

Food Scene

I found the food and drink in in Bratislava to be hearty, and the cuisine simple and basic. With the focus on pork, dumplings, sausages, and soup, I would hesitate to recommend this destination to vegans, or folks on a restricted diet, if variety of food were a primary focus.  Personally, I found the food to be delightful, but I knew what to expect on this trip. Hearty, lumberjack food, with some breaks here and there.  They do have foul and fish, but would add that those are more of a specialty, and not offered at a typical local place.

Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar.

A Pivovar is essentially a pub with its own micro brewery, which serves food. This place had an extensive local menu and was recommended to us at check in time. It looked like we could eat all of our meals here and have something different every time. I chose the roasted pork knuckle and my wife selected the roasted pork belly. The beer was a lager, and I tried a juniper brandy called Borovicka, which didn’t agree with me. The food was very good, and we considered returning here to try the other tempting menu items. I would highly recommend this place, and as it turned out, it was a stop on our Bratislava Food Tour!

 

Restauracia Drazdiak

This restaurant was on the shore of a little urban lake with the same name. I’ve never felt more like a local in a restaurant.  Fire grilled mackerel, and trout, mixed salad, grilled veggies. The grilled mackerel was cooked to perfection, with the crisped skin retaining the juicy, savory, fishy goodness. I like mackerel and look for it out when available, and this place did it right. My wife liked the grilled trout as well, a much milder fish.

 

Slovak Pub

Roast pork with red cabbage and dumplings. Garlic soup in a bread bowl, roast pork ribs with pickled veggies, horseradish (on the milder side), and mustard, also rather mild. The little round, green peppers were very spicy. One bite and my mouth was on fire, nothing else registered on the taste buds after that. The quality of the food, along with the service was rather middle of the road. It was not up to the Pivovar Pub standard.

 

Moods

English Breakfast, a modest sized cappuccino, a generous mug of black tea. It was a Slovak interpretation on the classic dish. The sausage was a spicy hot dog like variant, the bacon local, one egg sunny side up, half of a tomato, baked beans,  plus a small mixed salad on the side. I don’t believe the English would approve.

 

Bratislava Food Tour

This was one of the highlights of discovering Bratislava. The food was great, our guide was friendly, energetic, and knowledgeable, and we met some nice folks as we indulged in the local goodies. I would highly recommend this as a way of getting to know the city and food culture. Below are the locations, along with the fare sampled there.

BRATISLAVA CASTLE

C?uc?oriedkovica (blueberry brandy

 

KAPUCINSKA

Oravský korbác?ik (little whip cheese) 

Oravské udené uzlíky (smoked knot sheep cheese) 

Bravc?ová klobása (pork sausage) 

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BRATISLAVSKÝ MEŠTIANSKY PIVOVAR            

Oškvarková nátierka (cracklings paté with bread) 

Bryndzová nátierka (bryndza spread with bread) 

Vianoc?ná kapustnica (Christmas sauerkraut soup) 

 

BUCHTÁREN?            

Buchta s c?erešn?ovým džemom (steamed dumpling with cherry jam) 

Buchta s nutelou (steamed dumpling with nutella) 

Buchta s bryndzovou nápln?ou (steamed dumpling with bryndza filling)

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ZYLINDER

 Špenátové pirohy (spinach pierogi with bryndza sauce) ?

 Kac?ací konfit (roasted duck breast with stewed cabbage, potato pancakes and bread dumplings)

 Prešporský schnitzel (Bratislava veal schnitzel with potato salad) ?

 Red wine André 

 

LUCULUS 

Zmrzlina (ice cream)

 

MOODS – DOBRÁ NÁLADA NA KORZE

Bratislavské rožky (Bratislava rolls with poppy seed/nut filling)

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Epilogue

Reflections on Bratislava. A charming and historic old town, less crowded and touristy, contrasted harshly with the remainder of the outlying city with its sprawl of Soviet-engineered apartment complexes. I had the distinct feeling that Slovakia was on a lower economic rung as compared to its western-slavic neighbors in Poland and the Czech Republic – and most certainly as compared with Austria. The locals were lovely and friendly. The food and drink were basic and hearty, with pork, dumplings, cabbage, soups highlighting the local menu; and beer, Slivovica (plum brandy) and Borovicka (juniper brandy) as beverage staples. I would do a return visit to Bratislava in a heartbeat. This was a memorable destination, and the photos do not do it justice.

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Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Travel Planning Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

 

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Motivation

This is about trip planning, but more than anything, it’s about an exercise of imagination, the expression of curiosity, and the definition of a theme. Imagine  approaching an elegant buffet with a great variety of food and drink, ranging from haute cuisine to more basic, but tempting dishes from far flung parts of the world. You’re hungry. How do you decide what to eat with so much variety? The problem comes down to choice, with an endless array at our fingertips.

Such is the challenge in trip planning. The explorable world is before us like an elegant, well organized buffet. We merely need to decide what’s next on our plate. It sounds easy, and it would be if we had hard constraints. Using the buffet analogy, if we were shellfish lovers for example, we could immediately eliminate a large portion of the menu and concentrate on what we like most. And so it is with trip planning. We need to know what we like, or at least what interests us next, either due to curiosity or the ongoing execution of a theme.

And that’s what I like to do – work on a broad theme, in this case it’s Europe. This particular theme has been unfolding for over a decade, with sometimes focused exploration of one country, and other times far flung meandering across a region. This trip leans towards the meandering, but with a connecting thread that binds the destinations together – mostly.

Slovakia, southern Poland, and the Czech Republic, a collection of Western Slavic speaking Central European countries, geographically contiguous, and explorable by automobile over a couple of weeks. All three share the same branch of the European language tree, and have culture and history binding them together as well. The food is hearty and the drink is strong, with the latter useful for warding off the chills of the long winter nights.

 

Itinerary

In short, the selection is as follows, to be navigated in a grand counterclockwise circuit by automobile over 14 days:

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – 3 nights

 

Kosice, Slovakia – 2 nights

 

Krakow, Poland – 3 nights

 

Wroclaw, Poland – 2 nights

 

Olomouc, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

I wanted to visit Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia because they are its main cities. I wanted to visit Krakow because it’s simply a must see in Poland, more so than any other city based on its history, culture, and architecture – and Wroclaw not only due to geographic proximity to Krakow, but because in addition, it’s worthy of a visit.  I wanted to finish the circuit with the exploration of smaller towns in the Czech Republic, since I’d already been to Prague on a previous trip.  Olomouc stood out a great opportunity for exploration with its history dating back to the 11th century, and as a lesser known, off the tourist path type of destination. I selected Cesky Krumlov as the final destination for very similar historic reasons, although it is as firmly part of the beaten down tourist path as possible.

I elected to start the itinerary in Bratislava and work my way east to Kosice, covering most of Slovakia over a 5 day period.  Then head north to Krakow, Poland for a 3 day exploration of the ancient seat of Polish Kings – which saw no damage to speak of in the major wars of the 20th century, and should be in pristine architectural shape. Continuing the counterclockwise circuit, I next selected Wroclaw for 2 nights as a compliment to Krakow in Poland. Also steeped in history, but did not escape the specter of war unscathed. And the circuit is completed in the Czech Republic with stops in Olomouc, and Cesky Krumlov, each for 2 nights, covering both the former kingdoms of Moravia, and Bohemia.  I thought the two cities would represent the Czech Republic well, although Cesky Krumlov is densely touristed, I had hoped I was early enough in the season to avoid the main surge.  I reserved a 1 night stay in Vienna to await the early return flight to Heathrow, connecting back to Atlanta.  Without this tactical accommodation, I would have had to drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna in the very early hours of a Sunday morning, like departing at 2:30 AM, to arrive at the Vienna airport at 6:00 AM. I shudder at the thought.

 

Logistics

There are no direct commercial flights from the US to Bratislava. It’s easy to check this with Google Flights using the Explore feature while filtering on direct flights only. Given that I had to make a layover, I selected London Heathrow because of the broad selection of connecting flights, which gave me a reasonable connection time, as well as good prices due to competition among carriers. I chose a direct flight to Vienna from Heathrow to complete the outbound air transportation part of the trip. The Vienna airport is serviced by many more carriers than Bratislava’s airport, which drives up competition and reduces prices. And the Vienna airport is an easy 45 minute Uber ride to central Bratislava.

With so many cities to connect to, I definitely wanted to drive over taking trains and public transportation. It’s the connection time that elongates travel using public transportation. And nothing beats the convenience of going on your own schedule to wherever you need to on any given day. Can’t do that with public transportation. Driving is more expensive to be sure, but I’m optimizing for time, not budget.  And there will be plenty of driving, to be sure.  I estimate about 2,000 kilometers of driving with 3 to 4 ½ hours between the destinations planned, which is a golden opportunity for discovering the countryside, and stopping in little out of the way places in between.

With so many interesting, steeped in history, smaller cities to explore, I definitely wanted apartments over hotels on this trip. And I was focusing on apartments that were centrally located, within the confines of the  pedestrian-only parts of the old town. This allows for convenient exploration with no transit time to get to the historic and interesting parts of town. And there’s nothing more immersive than stepping out of your own door and being in the heart of the historic part of town.

 

Resources

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.  It’s interesting that I booked no properties with Homeaway on this trip, especially considering that I explore for apartments there first.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone with all of the languages I need on this trip already downloaded. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (a huge improbability in Europe).

In Your Pocket guides were useful for getting a background, and some history of Krakow and Wroclaw in particular, but also good for an overview of Olomouc. The quality is very good, and I hope they do more cities.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a BMW 520d. An excellent automobile for the exhilarating driving possible on European roads.

Uber is what I planned to use to get to central Bratislava from the Vienna airport, as well as return to Vienna from Bratislava after dropping off the rental car to spend the night before the return flight to Heathrow.  It also comes in handy for getting around from point A to B once I’ve had enough walking for one day (which sometimes, but rarely, happens).

 

Epilogue

Reflections on this trip.  The itinerary in general was very good, but I am disappointed as to how densely touristed Cesky Krumlov was even in early June, the time we were at this particular destination. CK was interesting, and I liked the destination, but found it impossible to blend in, and have an immersive experience. There is no such thing – it was like trying to be immersive at Disney World.  In retrospect, I would have chosen Telc as the second city in the Czech Republic, and bypass CK, because it doesn’t fit my criteria for Immersive Travel. Otherwise, I would consider this trip epic, with many fond memories of the destinations visited.

 

 

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