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 bratislava

7 brezen (mar)
I left the rain and wind behind in Prague and boarded a 6am bus east to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I read an entire Terry Pratchett book during the 10 hour round trip. I had about eight hours in the city, long enough. Those who say that Bratislava will be the next Prague, a popular travel site because it's still inexpensive, must not have ever been there. Yet there is a pleasant little network of streets in the old town center and a few attractions that made the trip worthwhile.

The rectangular Bratislava castle looms to the east of the old town on a high hill overlooking the Danube River. The Danube is wide, spanned by two modern bridges that shine like silver in the sunlight. Across the river on the southern shore, Communist block buildings in pastel colors march to the horizon. In the castle only one of the museums was open, the Treasury of Slovakia, which held a striking collection of archeological treasures. They were small but special: ancient pieces of jewelry and tools from metal, stone and bone. The most remarkable was a woman's body, a fertility icon smaller than my fist, carved from a mammoth tusk dated at 25,000 years old.

There was an outstanding exhibition at the National Museum called "How Did We Live?" A stimulating collection of photos, stories, postcards, artifacts, tableaus and multimedia followed the history and lifestyles of the Slovakian people through the twentieth century. For a time, that history coincided with that of the Czech Republic, before Czechoslovakia split. Most memorable was a video of the crowds at Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when the Russian occupation ended peacefully. I had seen photos of this but it was so moving to see on film: a sea of people filled the square, silent with arms raised, jingling keys in celebration of a new country and a new future.

As with many European cities, sculpture abounds. But most seemed to be simpler creations, less ponderous, and some downright whimsical like the people planted around the old town center: one leaning on a bench, one poking up through a manhole, and a third rounding a corner aiming a camera. Slovakians must have a sense of humor.

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The rules have changed. As of December 21st, the Czech Republic joined the Schengen agreement, which now includes 25 European countries. For residents of the participating countries, travel between countries is borderless - unrestricted and unmonitored. Tourists are allowed to travel freely among these countries for 90 days out of any six month period.

My friends and I are still struggling to learn the implications of the agreement for us, foreign teachers, who have already been here for more than 90 days. The regulations state that if you hold a work visa in one of the countries, the other countries should allow you to visit for up to five days. However none of us have valid visas at the moment; we are in a holding pattern. My colleagues have applied for their visas but they have not yet been issued; mine expired at the end of January and, although I applied for renewal back in December, I haven't seen it yet. The word is that the granting authorities are overwhelmed (the exact word, in fact, of a Czech official I heard speak) by the number of applications. In the past, you could just leave the country every 90 days to get your passport stamped, and then you would have another 90 days, so there are many people here working, teaching, who have been here for years and had never bothered to apply.

Ninety days from the implementation of Schengen are up on March 21st. The foreign police in Prague will observe another 90 day grace period, which means we don't have to worry about being deported until the end of June, however we have been advised not to leave the country because we may not be allowed back in, especially at airport checkpoints. I have some international trips booked for a couple of long weekends later this spring. I'm hoping the visa will arrive in time, otherwise I will need to reschedule or cancel. The school tells us to sit tight and wait, and Don't Leave The Country.

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