Bratislava (Part 2)

Next to the Old Town Hall was the Primate’s Palace, built between 1778 and 1781, which has a Hall of Mirrors and some beautiful 17th century English tapestries, as well as period furnishings. The Hall of Mirrors was underwhelming, but the rest was beautiful enough for me to take a photo despite it’s being verboten. After the palace, we dashed up to a photography exhibition which was more pretentious than it was anything else, but it gave me the idea for a photo series of my own, “The secret lives of bridal gown mannequins”, the first of which is reproduced below.

Even with all of this touring, it still was only 3.30 in the afternoon, so I went to the Bratislava City Gallery, which Abby had seen the day before, while she went window-shopping. The Bratislava City Gallery was, in a minor way, spectacular. The Slovak modernists, such as Peter Palffy, did some amazing work. There was also a painting of Orpheus and Eurydice that was truly brilliant and haunting. (I’m kicking myself because I did not write down the name of the artist – it was no one I’d ever heard of, but I had to go back and look at it three times. Truly outstanding.) There was also an installation of books in which you walked through a narrow passage with books stacked to the sides, and mirrors were positioned on the ceilings, the floors, and the walls in front of and behind the books (from your direction) to reflect them so that it looked as though you were walking through an endless hallway of books. Here is a photo of it from the gallery.

From there, I went to have a beer in a comfortable pub across the street from the U.S. Embassy while I waited for Abby, and I realized that the nice thing about the bars and cafes in Bratislava is that they have women in them and aren’t just full of 20-to-60-year-old unemployed men who are drinking coffee all day long.

Dinner that night was a strange experience – we couldn’t get into the restaurant we wanted, and we couldn’t find anything else that looked appealing, so we finally chose one near the main square. We thought there were other people in the restaurant, but it turned out just to be a hen party in the back room, and the only other couple in the main dining room were eating from a McDonald’s bag and chatting (loudly) with the waitstaff. For some reason, we ordered anyway, trying to make the best of the situation, but the restaurant had almost none of the bottles on its wine list. At this point we were resigned to a disappointing experience, when the male of the couple unfolded himself from table, sat down at the piano in the front of the room, and began to play lovely dinner music. The food, when it came, wasn’t bad; and more diners entered the restaurant about halfway through our meal, so the place livened up some.

On Sunday, we met our guide, Roman, and piled into his car for a trip out to the Small Carpathians. He was an interesting enough guy, happy to talk about Slovakia and the effects of the Communist regime, so the conversation was lively. Červený Kameň castle was worth seeing, although the tour was conducted in Slovakian with Roman doing some translation (but he’d also given us an English-language flyer describing the castle rooms). The castle cellars are the deepest in Europe, for those of you who are impressed by such things. We then stopped in at a pottery shop, saw how traditional pottery is made (just the same way it is made everywhere else), and bought a plate.

Then it was on to the wine tasting. Basically, we were let loose for 45 minutes in a room full of about 70 open bottles for however much we wanted to taste.* We had a great time and tasted some pretty wonderful wines (and also some pretty awful ones). The wine is fairly inexpensive, so we bought five bottles before heading back to town, ate an early dinner, and took the bus back to Vienna.

Here are some other photos from the trip:

A view of the castle from an alley; me being grumpy a gargoyle; Abby atop St. Michael’s Gate; Communist-era Bratislava across the river.

And my first bridal series photo:

*Abby noted that this was not unlike the dinner we had at Cafe Bouley in New York City, where I met Abby’s parents for the first time over a paired tasting dinner at which the waiter left the bottles on the table, until he saw how much I was enjoying the wine in various bottles. I asked him why he had left the bottles on the table during the earlier courses if he hadn’t wanted us to drink our fill from them and he said, “Because some of the customers like to read the label” – as if they were cereal boxes or something. This time, I only sipped.

Fine times in the Hague

Blogger won’t let me upload my photos for part 2 of the Bratislava trip, so I’ll interrupt the blog to say that while we were in the Netherlands last weekend, we had what may have been the best meal I’ve had in years: we were in the Hague, at a restaurant called It Rains Fishes, and we had a paired five course menu. We started with two pieces of tekkamaki encrusted with sesame seeds and a lobster and seaweed salad, followed by prawns, then lightly braised scallops, then an incredible halibut with bok choy and black-and-white noodles in a truffle sauce – each paired with variously white wines – and we ended with a trio of chocolate desserts that was paired with a Pedro Jimenez sherry that was out of this world. Truly fabulous.

The rest of the trip was great as well. Apart from dinner, the highlight was a visit to the Mauritshaus, which is a small but excellent collection of Dutch painting also in the Hague. Anyway, as soon as Blogger gets back to normal, I’ll finish the Bratislava story, and then it’s on to a story about goats.

Bratislava (Part 1)

Bratislava, 45 km from Vienna. Bratislava, former capitol of the Hungarian empire. Braaa-ti-slava where the wind comes sweepin’ down the … never mind, Bratislava is where Abby and I were on 3-6 April – I for a conference, Abby to play the accompanying spouse for once. As it goes, Bratislava is a nice place to visit for a weekend – a small Old City, Hapsburg-era architecture, beautiful cathedrals, good food and wine. Another thing the city is known for is whimsical statuary.

We arrived Thursday afternoon, checked into a pretty nice hotel, and then started walking through the city. We came upon the Philharmonia concert hall and bought tickets for the program, which included a Brahms violin concerto and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. It was a capable performance, but not brilliant; and at the end, the audience applauded but didn’t give a standing ovation, as they would have done in the U.S. This struck me because it always surprises me when audiences stand up for even a completely average symphonic or theatrical program, as if the spectators had to act as though they’d just seen an amazing performance or else the night would have been a disappointment. If standing ovations are so common, how are we supposed to celebrate a truly excellent performance – by sacrificing a virgin to the first violinist? But I digress.

Friday, I sat in a conference room and listened to my U.N. colleagues talk about the future of the Growing Sustainable Business Initiative (which is not looking particularly bright, since the funding runs out on June 30) and supply chain analysis while Abby toured the city. She’ll have to fill you in on what she saw; but we then all met up and went to a tapas restaurant in the Old City and had a great dinner. The Slovakian red was better than the Spanish red, and that’s saying something. Abby and I then stopped in a nice music bar on the way home – the live music wraps up by 11.00 PM in Bratislava, but the crowds were still lively – for one last drink.

We started Saturday morning with a visit to the tourist agency, where the woman behind the desk made it clear that she could think of one hundred better things to do with her time than provide information to tourists. We left with no new information, but a man followed us out and asked if we’d asked about a wine tour. We had, we answered, and he handed us a pamphlet for his company, which offered just such a tour along with a visit to Červený Kameň castle in the Small Carpathian mountains. We agreed to think about it (and ultimately went; see below).

From there, we took a look inside the Jesuit cathedral and then went up to the gothic-style St. Martin’s Cathedral, where the Hungarian kings used to be coronated. The stained glass windows were spectacular, and the cathedral also had an extensive crypt. On walking in, it briefly reminded me of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, which makes sense – tunnels, dim lights, dead people.

After the cathedral, we walked to Bratislava Castle, which was a bit of a trick, since we had to find a way across the highway that the Communists had driven right through that part of the Old City, and the footbridge marked on the map was closed for construction. After a little circumnavigation, we found it. Abby had learned that the castle for a while had been used as a monastery and then as a barracks before being returned to use for tourism, and that in both these uses much of the glitter had been stripped away. Our tourist guide has this to say about the Castle:

The national cultural monument of Bratislava castle is both the symbol and the dominant feature of the city. The first traces of settlement originate from the end of the late stone age, and there are relics here from the ages of the Roman to the Great Movavian empire. The castle has undergone gothic and renaissance reconstructions. Following the battle at Moháč in 1526, when the Turks defeated the Hungarian armies, the castle became the seat of the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I (accompanied by castle reconstruction). The most fundamental alterations were made during the reign of Marie Theresa (1740-1780). On 28 May 1811 a great fire broke out in the castle, and for 150 years the castle existed as a ruin. Reconstructions had to wait until after World War II. Part of the premises today serves for representative purposes of the Slovak National Council. The castle complex also houses exhibitions of the Slovak National Museum. The former chapel is the location of a concert hall. Legend has it that when empress Marie Theresa learned of the conspiracies of the nobles who did not want to be governed by a woman, she invited them to the castle and organised a banquet, at which witches turned them to stone. The stones were thrown into the castle well, thus forever blocking the secret passages which led from here.

At least, this is what the tourist guide says. The castle buildings were closed for renovation, so all we could do was walk the castle grounds. In fact took us 10 minutes just to find a sign directing us to the toilets. The grounds were pretty, however, so we enjoyed those, and then went back toward the Old City.

The castle; view of St. Martin’s from the park; nice things in the park.

The first stop on the way back was the Clock Museum, which was three floors of a narrow house filled with 18th and 19th century clocks of not-very-interesting provenance. Nearly as ancient as the clocks were the little old ladies who sat in the museum and followed us around to make sure we didn’t cause any trouble. There were a surprising number of tourists who arrived while we were there (this seemed to be a theme of the day – our getting in someplace just before a larger crowd), but thanks to the little old ladies, none of us … I don’t know, peed in the corners or whatever they thought we might have otherwise done. The next stop was St. Michael’s Gate, the only remaining gatehouse into the Old City. It had a relatively interesting weapons museum in its upper floors, so we climbed our way through that and out to look over the rooftops.

Views from the top of St. Michael’s Gate

From there, we visited the Old Town Hall, which contains artifacts from Bratislava’s past, stretching back from the Stone Age through to the 20th century. In all, the artifacts were interesting but pretty innocuous – until we were directed down a flight of stairs to the dungeon. There we saw manacles, cells and torture instruments, while the walls of the main room itself were decorated with enlargements of the most gruesome medieval etchings I’ve seen in a long time – hangings, impalings, disembowelings, the rack, a man hung by his legs and being sawn down the middle, someone else having his eyes poked out, etc. etc. We came back up and were immediately directed into a reproduction of an early 20th century middle-class Bratislavan apartment (Abby said, “Hey, this looks like my grandmother’s apartment!”) which was really well done, but it was hard for me to forget the drawing I had just seen of a man’s feet being held over a fire until the fat ran. It was a good museum overall, but I might have arranged the exhibitions in a slightly different order.

Part 2 to come …