Thursday, February 27, 2014

Honeymoon in Europe: Bratislava

Continuing on from Paris, Salzburg and Vienna.

Shortly after Christmas, Chrissy and I decided to take a quick daytrip to Bratislava, Slovakia...mostly because it was so close. And really, why not!?

Our journey from Vienna was extremely quick at approximately 70 minutes. On our train to the Slovakian capital we compared our relatively small amount of knowledge that we had on the country. We both knew the basics; former part of Habsburg Empire, part of former Russian block as Czechoslovakia, independent for a relatively short time (1993). Other than that I knew mostly it's hockey history through it's most famous NHL'ers; the Statsny's, Bondra, Demitra, Satan, and Chara...quality players.

Conveniently we snagged a Rick Steeves travel book on our way out our hotel and for the last few minutes of our transit we crammed all the tourist info we could into our heads.

Grassalkovich Palace

A short walk from the train station led us to a beautiful garden and the residence of the President of Slovakia. 

We arrived just in time to see the ceremonial changing of the guard, snap a few pictures and then continue time for lingering on a day trip.

Old Town Hall & City Museum

Due to our work history at EEDC, Christina and I have an affinity for tourism information centres. Our first stop after the Palace was to stop at the info bureau to pick up maps and get some local recommendations.
The young very tall gentlemen working at the info centre gave us some great tips and then flipped the script on us and started asking question after question about Canada and Alberta. Our helpers inquisitive nature pleasantly surprised us and set us into our own inquisitive mood. This resulted in us walking straight out of the tourism centre and straight into the Old Town Hall & Bratislava City Museum.

The museum was extremely well organised with many artifacts displaying the history of the building, the city and the day to day life of citizens over the last few decades. Best of all was the old ladies working at the museum. Other than Chrissy and I there was probably only 3 or 4 other people in the whole museum. This led to special attention by the staff as they casually watched us and guided us through the building. We couldn't understand them and they couldn't understand us but their knowing nods and directional pointing added a lot of charm to the experience.

The museum is definitely worth a visit, as is the square located just outside.

Check out the picture below. You'll see a cannonball still embedded (or at least replaced during renovations) that was shot by Napoleon's soldiers during the bombardment of the city in 1809.

Touring the Historic Old Town

After all of the hustle and bustle of downtown Vienna, Chrissy and I really enjoyed casually strolling through the heart of old Bratislava. 

Slovak National Theatre

Michael's Gate

Cool architecture and a contrasting facade

Cannonball above Cukráreň na Korze (chocolate shop)

Bratislava Castle in background, Capuchin Church in foreground

St. Martin's Cathedral the coronation church for Hungarian kings

Bratislava Castle

In the 10th century, Bratislava became a key part of the expanding Hungarian state. To solidify the cities position a stone palace and a church  were built on what is now known as castle hill in the 11th century. Ever since this time a fortified 'castle' has sat upon this elevated perch overlooking the Danube River.

Both Chrissy and I are a sucker for castles so it was a foregone conclusion that we would visit the attraction.

The interior of the castle is admittedly a little weird. Slovakia has recognised the importance of tourism to their economy and has done a fabulous job of developing and updating their tourist assets. This leads to beautifully redone interiors with fresh looking paint inside of buildings that trace back to medieval times

Restoration of the Castle: A little paint goes a long way
Perhaps the most memorable experience we had at the castle came during our descent down an exceptionally steep set of stairs from a tower spire. Multiple weeks of walking 10+km's a day, the climb up to the castle and the near vertical steps finally took there toll on me and my legs literally gave out. I had a moment of burning, and then numb - I gingerly folded in on myself to sit on my rump. Thankfully after a couple of minutes I got the strength to continue. Chrissy was quite worried but I just thought it was comical.

Back outside we rested our legs and looked out at the New Bridge and the UFO deck.

A Sense of Whimsy

It seems that Slovaks must have a great sense of humour as we encountered some really funny intentional and unintentional (?) things during our trip.

Within the Old Town there are multiple statues commemorating some infamous citizens and historical periods including my favourite: Schöner Naci.

Schöner Naci
Schöner Naci, whose real name was Ignác Lamár, is remembered for being one of Bratislava's social institutions...he was famous for wandering the streets of the city, elegant in morning suit and top hat. He would frequently doff his hat to the ladies he passed and offer them flowers or a song.1
The Rubberneck statue is a remarkably simple yet ingenious statue. The happy workman is emerging from the manhole cover that looks out on an intersection. Over the years he has witnessed many an accident including a couple cases of hit and run where he has been ran over and slightly damaged.

I am a fan of gargoyles and this guy was exceptional.

For lunch Christina and I stopped at the Slovak House restaurant. It was just a stones throw away from St. Michael's gate right in the centre of old town. We didn't expect such 'lustful gluttony' decorations when we entered. Needless to say, it certainly helped my appetite :)

This next picture just goes to show the historical basis (picture taken at Old Town Hall) for the character of "Fran" from the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.

Other Highlights:

Excellent beer at Zámocký Pivovar

Great prices for a couple of awesome pints of beer


  • It was really interesting to see how hard the locals are working to create a positive tourism experience in their core. Signage everywhere was in multiple languages, the people were friendly, and everything was exceptionally clean.
  • Our one day visit was sufficient for us but it would have been nice to spend a full night there to explore a bit more and try a few more of their excellent local beers.
  • Compared to nearby Vienna, the prices were significantly less expensive.
  • Next stop - Budapest.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Honeymoon in Europe: Vienna

Continuing on from our stops in Paris and Salzburg Chrissy and I arrived in Vienna just a few days before Christmas.

Chrissy and I rolled in via the subway at Stephansplatz station moments before 7PM and made our way to the exit/entrance. Usually when entering a new city, my senses are a little heightened as I am paying extra attention to the surroundings looking at signs or identifying landmarks. With my head on a swivel and my senses sharp we ascended the escalator to the surface when I became aware that the church bells had just started ringing. With the bells chiming and the sounds of classic Christmas music faintly in the background we were treated to a spectacular vision of St. Stephen's Cathedral. It seemed truly magical and is definitely one of the most memorable travel moments of my life. Vienna knows how to make a first impression!

Extra effects from Google / Picasa

Walking through the crowd we marveled at the beautiful architecture and amazing Christmas displays as we meandered to our hotel: the Pertschy Palais. We were warmly greeted at the front desk and then pleasantly surprised by the complimentary honeymoon champagne and romantic room decorations.

Another great hotel to continue our honeymoon adventure.

Exploring the Inner Ring

Vienna is a fabulous example of a centralized city. The major cultural center and historic landmarks are all located within and along the Ringstraße (Ring Road).
"The street was built to replace the city walls, which had been built during the 13th century and funded by the ransom payment derived from the release of Richard I of England, and reinforced as a consequence of the First Turkish Siege in 1529.... In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria issued the decree "It is My will" ordering the demolition of the city walls and moats. In his decree, he laid out the exact size of the boulevard, as well as the geographical positions and functions of the new buildings...The Ringstraße and the planned buildings were intended to be a showcase for the grandeur and glory of the Habsburg Empire."
From our hotel we could reach any destination within the inner ring in no more than 15 minutes or we could jump on a tram and travel the circle in even less time.

Parliament Building


Rathaus through the fog

Hofburg Palace

Pestsäule (English: Plague Column) on Graben

Theseus Temple in the Volksgarten

St. Stephan's Cathedral

Mozart Statue in Burggarten

The Third Man Tour

Shorty after deciding to visit Vienna,  Chrissy and I watched what is considered to be the greatest British film of the 20th century: The Third Man. The movie is set in Vienna, and although a fictional movie, it is a semi-realistic glimpse of the post WWII realty of Europe.

Checking tours on TripAdvisor we learned of a walking tour that featured many of Harry Lime's haunts and we jumped at the chance to learn more of post war Vienna.

Unfortunate for pictures but fortunate for atmosphere a thick fog descended on the city as our tour started.

If you happen to be a history buff or a film fan I highly recommend the tour as Chrissy and I really enjoyed it. Plus - after taking the tour you can re-watch the movie at the english Burg Kino.

Christmas Markets

With the days to Christmas fast approaching Chrissy and I spent as much time as possible in as many of Vienna's Christmas markets as we could. The ambiance, food, shopping and gluhwein were just fantastic and culminated for us in a magical Christmas Eve.

While at the markets we discovered the absolute joys of new foods. First off, the kartoffelpuffer which is a potato pancake / fritter combo cooked in this bad ass apparatus.

Additionally, we learned of and fell in love with Langos; a deep fried flatbread. Chrissy had seen a few people walking around with what we thought was a pastry and we successfully pantomimed an order for what we assumed was a sweet treat. Instead on the first bite we were treated to a very heavy piece of bread with enough garlic to keep away a swarm of vampires. It was seriously good! However, we both exuded garlic out of our pores for hours on end after. At least we both smelled that way....

If there are any food trucks out there looking for a special dish to add to their menu I would highly recommend adding this 'delicacy'.

Chrissy loves Langos
To work down all that heavy bread we found that mulled wine (gluhwein) and the occasional 'hunters tea' (schnapps, rum and spice) really helped.

Chrissy loves Gluhwein

Schonbrunn Palace

From the 18th century to 1918, Schönbrunn Palace was the residence of the Habsburg emperors.
Similar to Versailles the grounds encompass a beautiful residential palace and a large sprawling garden.

Although, quite ornate, it is considerably less opulent that it's French counterpart. Maybe for this reason I enjoyed it more.

The Aviary

The Ruins of Carthage
Like any good ruler of a vast kingdom the Habsburg's had a menagerie at their palace. Today that collection exists in spirit as a zoo located within the grounds. Chrissy and I decided not to visit the zoo but we did skirt the outside of the area to see if we could spot any animals. Much to our surprise we ended up getting a great view of an Indian Rhinoceros.

For both of us this was the first time seeing a live rhino and we were extremely giddy. So cool.


Just outside the Inner Ring is the most bizarre apartment building I have ever seen. Built on a concept of disorder, curved lines and personal embellishment this expressionist landmark is the work of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser with architect Joseph Krawina as a reluctant co-author.

Our pictures don't do justice to the undulations, contours and greenery of the building. Particularly cool I thought was the rule that any tenant of the building can affect the facade of the building within arms length of their own window. You'll notice that some have chosen to simply paint the area while others have installed reflective tiles and ceramics.

BTW - I quite liked the building and the concepts behind it. Chrissy thought it was cool but much prefers cleaner lines and symmetry. For those of you who know us I am sure you can appreciate our differing points of view and how it relates to our personality.

Other Highlights:

A guided tour of the Opera House

Wiener Schnitzel

Belvedere Palace

Ridiculously huge Christmas light displays

Watching the ducks in the Stadtpark

Clever bar signs

Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg

Horse Carriage Tour


  • The Christmas lights on main streets (as pictured above) were absolutely huge. Certain streets had their own distinct decoration which ended up being very helpful for our wayfinding. From the city centre we would follow chandeliers to crowns and that would lead us directly to our hotel.
  • Chrissy and I were relatively ignorant of the details of the Habsburg Empire. It was great to learn more about them but I was disappointed to learn of the adoration of Sissi. Much like Marie Antoinette she seemed like a completely useless woman who enjoyed absolute luxury in a world that was pretty harsh and then bitched about it. So many other worthy royals to focus on.
  • We had so much good food in Vienna: the schnitzel, sausage, street food and the sacher cakes were all fantastic. However, I have to admit disappointment with the classic Viennese Roast. I should have trusted my instincts that boiled beef would taste exactly how it sounds.
  • I wouldn't have considered myself to be a Gustav Klimt fan but seeing some of his most famous works at the Belvedere Palace has brought me around to liking him. The Kiss looks pretty cool up close but it's not nearly as bedevilling as Judith
  • A general travel tip: If a city was at one time the crown city of an empire - go to there.
  • Next stop: Day trip to Bratislava,