Bratislava. The name simply sounds foreign and Eastern European to my American ears. The number of times I have had to describe the geographic location for my December trip to Vienna, Austria and from there to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, indicates the general lack of map awareness with my friends and family. Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria are only separated by 40 miles of road, train tracks and a stretch of the Danube River.
Vienna, Austria Hauptbahnhof train station.
Danube River, Vienna bridge crossing on train.
Danube River seen from Bratislava Castle.
I spent two weeks in Slovakia and Austria in September 2016. The photos above are from my summer green tour of the countries.
Central European Winter
Next week will reveal the darker side of European seasons to me when I return to Austria and Slovakia. I am looking to make the best out of the shitty cold weather with inexpensive dining, drinking and shopping in Bratislava, Slovakia and Krakow, Poland. Temperatures are currently forecast to be 20s and low 30s.
I’ll probably be sharing lots of gray sky photos during my winter travels.
My $492.66 round trip American Airlines open-jaw ticket from Salzburg, Austria to San Francisco and back to Vienna, Austria is coming up on the date for my return flight to Europe. I’ll try to make best use of the First Class lounges in LAX and LHR during my final trip as an AAdvantage Executive Platinum flyer. Does not look like I will see that elite level again with AAdvantage. That is one of the reasons I have been writing a lot lately about ways to earn cheap British Airways Executive Club elite. 2017 as AAdvantage Platinum will likely be my last year of elite membership with a U.S. based major alliance carrier, as long as they remain revenue-based.
Take the Best out of the sh**ty cold weather
Helsinki, Finland has been making the news lately in travel media for a banner seen at Helsinki Airport.
Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November.
Except you, you badass. Welcome.
That expression kind of sums up my anticipation for this December European winter experience in Vienna with an overland journey to Bratislava and Krakow, Poland, then a flight to Stockholm for SAS back to San Francisco.
After 14 hours sun in New Zealand last month from 6:00 am – 8:00pm, I’ll be trading in December’s 10 hours of daylight along the California coast for 6 to 8 hours in central and northern Europe with sunset each day between 3:30 and 4pm in the four countries I will visit.
Cheap Beer is My Holiday Self-Gift
Slovakia and Poland stand out to me as tourist destinations with the cheapest pubs, restaurants and shopping I have seen in Europe. They also have a reasonably accessible English speaking service sector and decent infrastructure for transportation. While Vienna may be considered the most livable city on the planet, Bratislava is one of the most affordable European cities for a tourist.
Saris 0.5 liter beer = 16.9 oz. at 0.80 EUR = 84 cents USD in Slovakian pub.
Informational signs at tourist sites in Slovakia and Poland are most commonly posted in the national language and English. There are loads of diacritical marks on the letters indicating pronunciation, but no letters we don’t see in the English alphabet.
I am a monolingual American traveler. I don’t mind a bit of mime performance to get my meaning across to non-English speakers and I know a few words in several languages, but I need English to really communicate most effectively.
The number one question I get about travel in this region of Central Europe is how widely is English spoken? English is commonly spoken in Bratislava and Krakow. Even in the rural parts of Slovakia I did not struggle to communicate. Grocery store clerks is where I most frequently run into communication issues.
An educated young Slovakian man I spoke with in English at length on a train ride from Poprad to Bratislava last September told me Italy was the country he had the most difficulty traveling around due to so few people he encountered who spoke English.
Russian language is seen at some major tourist attractions in Slovakia and Poland, but most of the Russian I saw while traveling through these two countries was present on World War II monuments.
Russian World War II Memorial, Poprad, Slovakia
Prague, Czech Republic is probably the most familiar city for American tourism in the past 25 years from the former Soviet Bloc nations who gained independence after 1989.
Czechoslovakia was a nation state from October 1918 to January 1, 1993. The original nation formation was a breakaway republic from the former Austro-Hungarian empire, a dominant power of European politics and culture for centuries. The creation of Czechoslovakia came at the end of World War I when the defeated Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburg Monarchy dissolved. Slovakia was incorporated into Czechoslovakia.
The Velvet Revolution of Nov-Dec 1989 saw Czechoslovakia break from the U.S.S.R. (Russia). Three years later Slovakia and the Czech Republic peacefully separated into independent nations January 1, 1993 in what is called the ‘Velvet Divorce’.
Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic is a UNESCO heritage site home (low rise white house in photo center) where the Velvet Divorce was finalized in a signing ceremony on Aug 26, 1992.
Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague have some shared cultural history via the Habsburg Monarchy. The Habsburgs ruled Austria from 1279. Neighboring Kingdom of Hungary had its own rulers since the country Christianized in 1000 under Stephen I. Hungary peaked in the 15th century, but the Ottoman invasion of Hungary led to the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 where the Hungarian King was killed and dynastic claims passed to the Habsburg Monarchy. While the Ottomans occupied the capital Buda, the Habsburg forces repelled Ottoman sieges of Pressburg (Bratislava) and Vienna on the Danube River. The Kingdom of Hungary became part of the Habsburg Empire from 1526 to 1918. Pressburg (Bratislava) was the capital of Hungary from 1538 to 1784.
St. Martin’s Cathedral, Bratislava (1452) was the coronation church for the Kingdom of Hungary 1563-1830.
Everything looked so green and beautiful in mid-September when I walked the streets of Bratislava and spent ten days in sunshine across Slovakia.
Krakow, Poland was amazing in July 2016.
Krakow Main Square – Rynek Główny.
I commonly hear from locals in many places where I travel outside of summer months that I should return in summer to see the place in the best weather. But I don’t limit my travel to only the best weather months. I know Bratislava and Krakow are amazing places to hang out in green parks and by the river on warm evenings.
My travels the past 16 months have taken me across the Czech Republic from Prague to Brno and Slovakia from Kosice to Bratislava. This trip will take me north from Bratislava to Krakow, Poland through Brno again and across eastern Czech Republic and southern Poland.
Over the next couple of weeks I will find out what it is like to visit the badass eastern front of central Europe in the shitty cold dark weather of December.
Uppsala, Sweden snow day December 1, 2015 view from Radisson Blu window. We watched a fireworks show over Uppsala castle the day before – at 4:30pm.