Dobr� den from Bratislava, Slovakia! Slovak Republic is the country's official name, but most people call it Slovakia. The country's largest city and capital is Bratislava, which is where I am now. This is the second stop of my four-country jaunt through Central/Eastern Europe. I'm touring with my childhood friends Matt and Mike. This is a very special trip because at our final destination -- to be revealed in an upcoming newsletter � Mike is getting married! Last week (here's the link to the archives) we were in Prague, and while I was there I didn't know Jack about Slovakia. I didn't even have a mad desire to visit it. The name "Slovakia" didn't do much for me -- it didn't give me the same warm, fuzzy feeling that "Australia" and "France" do. But that's not the case anymore. As you'll see, this little country has far more to offer than a strange name. If you want to experience what I think will be one of the most "in" destinations in the very near future, then jump on our train -- it's departing! For those in a hurry or with ADD, don't worry; there's a 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.
GETTING TO BRATISLAVA
There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Bratislava, but the very international Vienna airport is only 31 miles away. Most Americans who travel to Bratislava come by train from either Budapest, Vienna, or Prague (Praha). We came in from the latter. We left our hotel, and took a 500 CSK ($22) taxi 10 minutes to the Praha -Holesovice Railway Station. Although it was early on a Saturday morning, the station was jam- packed with travelers. We were unsure where to get our rail pass stamped, because none of the signs were in English. I found a ticket window where the agent had an English flag (meaning he spoke English), and he pointed me to the right place.
EUROPEAN EAST RAIL PASS
Because this was the first leg using our European East Pass, an agent had to validate it. No other trip would not require waiting in line � all we have to do is fill in the date before getting on the train. (TIP: Be sure to write in the date before the conductor comes around; otherwise you could get a steep fine or risk having your ticket confiscated). The European East Pass covers 5 days of rail travel in 4 countries. We got our $244 first class pass (second class costs $172) from RailEurope.com before we left the States (they're unavailable after leaving the U.S.). If you are traveling like we are -- visiting multiple countries, and you know which trains you will take -- it's a good idea to book one of these passes before you leave home. That's especially true in the summer, when some trains can be sold out. If you are traveling to one or two countries only, it's not worth it � just buy point-to-point tickets at the station (but arrive extra early to avoid long lines).
PRAGUE TO BRATISLAVA
The 4-hour and 7-minute train ride was pleasant (we made only five stops) -- until we arrived at the Czech/Slovakian border, and customs agents from both countries came around checking passports. (If you're a passport-stamp collector, ask them to stamp yours � they stamped mine, but not Mike's). The mood changed when Matt got that "uh oh" look on his face. I whispered, "Please tell me you didn't leave your passport back in the hotel safe?" From his pale face, I knew he wasn't joking. We had no idea how the not-so-friendly-looking agents would react. Would they throw his dumb arse in jail? Make him go back to Praha? Fortunately, Matt had a photocopy of his passport; he was traveling with two other Americans who had their passports, and the agents didn't want to do all that paperwork. They mumbled a bit to each other and split. We all breathed huge sighs of relief -- but none was bigger than Matt's. He ended up spending hours on the phone and looking for a Western Union facility so he could get his passport DHL-ed to him. TIP: Always carry a photo copy of your passport -- separate from the original -- and keep a scanned copy of it online, in a web-based email account.
TAXI TO HOTEL
When we arrived at Bratislava's main train station, called Hlavna Stanica, we were met by Miro, a young, friendly and smart tour guide whom we arranged through the tourist board. Fortunately, we didn't have to deal with the crooked taxi drivers. Miro arranged a 150 SKK ($5) taxi ride to our hotel, which was only 1.2 miles (5 minutes) away. Matt was staying at a different hotel, not far away, and another taxi driver quoted him three times the price. That is the only negative thing I found about this city and region: The cabbies take advantage of tourists. Of course, that happens nearly everywhere�even in NYC. TIP: Have your hotel or restaurant call a reputable service, or make sure to negotiate the price in advance. FYI: The current exchange rate is 1 USD = 30 SKK (Slovakia Koruny).
BACKGROUND ON BRATISLAVA AND SLOVAKIA
Miro told us so much incredible information and history that we were delighted we'd hired him for a tour. I can't give you the same history lesson he gave us, but if you're interested, check out this insightful website. I can, however, give you a brief background on Bratislava and Slovakia. The official language is Slovak, but practically everyone in Bratislava speaks English. The city used to be called Pressburg, but it was changed to Bratislava in 1919, a year after Slovakia became part of Czechoslovakia. Slovakia regained its independence on January 1, 1993. It became the Slovak Republic, while its neighbor became the Czech Republic. Both joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. They don't use the euro yet, although they hope to by 2009 or 2010.
The latest census (2001) lists the total population of Slovakia at 5,379,450, with Bratislava at 452,288. Slovakia borders Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. The closest major city to Bratislava is Vienna � it's only 40 miles away (you can see the Austrian border from the Castle). Budapest is just 127 miles away, and Prague 217 miles. Vienna and Budapest are connected to Bratislava by the Danube River, and boat cruises are available from both cities (see links in the resource section). The country is made up of Slovaks (85%), Hungarians (11%), Italians (1.8%), Czechs (1.2%). Sixty percent of the people are Roman Catholic, 6.2% Evangelic, 3.4% Greek Orthodox, 10% non-denominational, while the remaining 21% did not have any data. Slovakia is located in a moderate climate zone, with all four seasons. The average daily winter temperature is 28� F; the average winter temperature is 70� F. For more click HERE