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Travel Guide: Bratislava

Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.

One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.

The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.

Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.

I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.

Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .

. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.

I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.

The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.

But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.

The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .

. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .

. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.

Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.

We also walked across the Danube River . . .

. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?

Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.

Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.

The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.

After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.

And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.

Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.

Travel Guide: Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, Trieste, Maribor

After four days in three cities in Austria, a beautiful drive through mountains, rolling hills, wind, sunshine, and blue skies led the way to Slovenia. After two nights in Slovenia, I headed into Italy just because “Let’s drive to Italy today” seemed like a fun thing to do. One more night in Slovenia completed this part of the road trip.

Lake Bled

I cannot say enough good things about Slovenia. And I almost don’t want to say anything at all because part of the magic of Slovenia is that it was quiet, though this might also be because I was there in the winter. But anyway, there are a million good things to say about Slovenia. Go see for yourself!

For my first night in Slovenia I stayed in Lesce, a small town in the hills that was close to everywhere I wanted to be but away from the much more popular area of Bled. The quiet, calm solitude was startling (even after a night at a farmhouse in Leoben) and contributed to quiet and calm in my mind, too.

However, I’d heard of Lake Bled in the past and knew I wanted to see it. There’s a castle and a church at the lake and while I didn’t venture up, I know you can actually visit. Instead, I opted for the 6km walk around the lake, which began with afternoon sun . . .

. . . went through a Christmas market celebrating its final night . . .

. . . and ended in the evening’s gathering darkness, though not without a cup of hot wine along the way.

Walking back from dinner that night along a silent street, I noticed the stars. The sky was dark and the stars were bright and the air was cold and I stood outside and just looked. We don’t see often stars in Singapore and when we do, they don’t look like Slovenian stars.

The world of that night was very different to the world of the morning waking up on a farm in Austria.

Lake Bohinj

The next morning, giggling at how I planned to spend my thirtieth birthday playing outside, I drove past Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj. There was snow on the ground as the road descended into another glacial valley and I actually got out of the car to look at the world. It was the magical winter fairytale of childhood that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

Before finding a parking spot at Lake Bohinj that turned out to be illegal, I stopped to visit Slap Savica, the Savica Waterfall. The walk up itself was nice and easy and it was beautiful to look out at the Julian Alps while listening to the rushing water and feeling the cold.

A picnic lunch on a bench in the sun was in order before a walk around Lake Bohinj. Later that day, I’d pay my parking ticket (oops) at the post office. The light on the lake was stunning, as were the mountains surrounding it.

I walked through a sub-alpine meadow and looked down at the lake and up to the mountains and felt the cold and the wind and the air.

There were plants and trees and runoff from the snow creating little rivers and puddles.

Once the sun disappeared behind the ridge and then grew smaller and smaller, it was time to go. It gets bitterly cold at night in January in Slovenia.

The drive to Bohinjska Cesnjica where I spent the night went through narrow twisting roads and tiny towns containing wood and stone guesthouses and farms. Late that night with the weather well below freezing, I walked outside to look at stars. How had I gotten here? How did any of us get here?

Trieste

The next day taught me that I never again want to have a car in an Italian city. I decided to go to Trieste rather than Croatia or Hungary, both of which are relatively nearby, based on the fact that Italy is in the eurozone. I drove through the sunshine and the Alps, which was lovely, and then into a busy city with small cars and limited parking, which was far less lovely. My tip for parking a car in Trieste: Spend a few euro and park in the spacious and huge parking lot at the port. It was easy to find once I knew it existed and the parking machines take coins, notes, and cards.

At least at that time of year, it appeared that all shops and many other establishments closed in the afternoon from 1 or 1:30 until 4 or 4:30, and I arrived close to 1. I had every intention of going back in the evening when shops would be open until 7 or 7:30, but the guesthouse where I spent the night was up a ridiculously narrow, winding road on a hill about 8km outside of town. There was no way I was going down (or up) that road in the dark.

One thing that struck me about Trieste is that this city is old. The buildings were beautiful but they had been standing for a long, long time.

It was also really neat to see a stadium from Roman times next to a car park and an apartment block. I very much love that about Europe.

I also really loved the greengrocer set up in the middle of a piazza.

And of course, there were grand piazze that are probably much busier in the summer.

The history of Trieste’s Jewish community dates back about 800 years and I walked to the synagogue . . .

. . . and through the old Jewish ghetto that was full of (unfortunately closed) quirky shops selling antiquities and used books.

All things considered, a wander through parts of Trieste was a perfectly acceptable way to spend an afternoon before settling into the little guesthouse on the hill. Looking down on Trieste both at night and in the morning was really cool.

Maribor

After a day away, I decided I missed Slovenia. In the morning, I drove to Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city. It was a bright and sunny day and not too cold yet, which was perfect weather for a walk. I looked at a map and found Jezero (Lake) Komarnik, which has marked running and hiking trails.

Remaining aware of the sun and the time of day, I chose the shorter of the two paths and found myself first walking along a dike at the edge of a field . . .

. . . and then crunching leaves underfoot in a forest.

There were nature signs posted along the route with information about plants, animals, and ecosystems and even though I didn’t understand any of it, I really enjoyed that it was there. The way a community treats the environment tells a lot about what that community is and what it stands for.

Later in the afternoon I walked through Maribor City Park, which is exactly what it sounds like. A large park in the middle of a city with ponds, old trees, a bandstand, and a nature centre.

On the drive to the park, I spotted signs for Pyramid Hill. As the sun was beginning to set, I followed the walking trail up the hill . . .

. . . through the vineyard . . .

. . . and past the recent excavations of a twelfth century castle.

Signs along the way, including some in English, explained Pyramid Hill and Maribor City Park and it was nice to get a sense of where I was. There are longer walking trails along the back of Pyramid Hill but it was far too late in the afternoon for those.

Once it was dark, I headed into the old town to find the town square, have some wine, and feel European. It grew very cold as night came in but the narrow cobblestones felt good under my feet and I walked until the need to actually feel my toes became urgent.

It had been a wonderful few days and I knew I’d miss Slovenia even before it was time to leave. I spent the last evening curled up reading a novel and researching international schools. This had been a very special adventure and it left me excited for the next day’s journey to Bratislava.

Travel Guide: Brussels

Spring break this year took me to Europe with the excuse of seeing my brother who’s studying in London. After two nights in the Netherlands with days spent in both Leiden and The Hague, I started for Brussels on what should have been an easy journey of just under three hours with a change of trains in Rotterdam. Well then. For reasons that are still unclear to me but likely relate to the train strikes that are not entirely uncommon in Europe, the journey ended up being far more exciting (and only about an hour longer) than I’d expected.

It took about 20 minutes and two stations for the fun to begin. We were stopped for an abnormally long time in Den Haag HS before an announcement prompted grumbles, eye rolls, irritated looks, and a flurry of activity. I can make very little sense of Dutch, but I do understand the universal language of mass transit delays. We got off the cancelled train; I asked directions and took the next train to Rotterdam. This train was due to arrive about two minutes before my originally scheduled train to Brussels and those two minutes were surprisingly enough time to grab my backpack and change platforms. All was well and good on train number three until that train, too, stopped unexpectedly. This time, the announcement came in Dutch, French, and English so I was clued into what was happening by the second announcement. We were in Roosendaal, I found our later, and a conductor told me I had two options: I could take the train about to leave for Antwerp and then go to Brussels from there, or I could wait an hour and take a train directly to Brussels. The Antwerp train, he told me, would be faster. And Antwerp, as I learned from the Dutch lady who told me where we were, had a really pretty train station.

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In Antwerp, I again asked directions and finally got on the train to Brussels. Now that we were in Belgium, all announcements came in Dutch, French, and English and I was pleased that high school French left me able to understand and communicate what I needed to know and do. And after deciding not to take one train and listening again to announcements, I also learned that Bruxelles-Midi and Brussel-Zuid are the same station. Noted.

It took five trains and four hours but finally I was in Brussels! A few friends had told me to be careful there and that they had not felt safe, and I immediately understood why. Brussels is metropolitan and creative, gritty and unapologetic, with a metro system that has seen better days. There is very visible income inequality and poverty and all the social problems that come with it. Homelessness is hidden in Singapore and the small towns of Leiden and The Hague are not the places where that’s generally a problem. Brussels, however, was a different story. Brussels also has very large immigrant populations and significant racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and I know (though it’s upsetting to realize) that’s often intimidating to people. More than anything, Brussels reminded me of Manhattan and I had one of those moments where I missed it.

As in Leiden, I dropped my bag at my Airbnb and headed out. I stopped at the first pancake restaurant I saw to get my bearings. Everyone in Brussels speaks multiple languages, much like in Singapore, and it was a great opportunity to practice my French. With the exception of a bar I’d visit later on, planning for my time in Brussels amounted to zero but the day was warm and sunny and that’s all I needed.

 

Not too long after I started walking along the Mont des Arts, I heard music coming from a group of street performers. Ed Sheeran gets me every time so I sat down on the steps, ate some almonds, and just listened to them play. Brussels and I were going to get along quite well.

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I really enjoyed the street art that I passed throughout the day. I like seeing how the people of a city want their city to look and I am fascinated by the social norms around street art all over the world.

 

Europe is easy to explore because every city, even the most modern ones, have stunning churches that act both as something to do and a landmark on map. Brussels was no exception and I stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula when I accidentally found myself in front of it.

 

I followed signs to Brussels Park to see the Royal Palace . . .

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. . . and then more signs to the European Parliament, which was celebrating the life and work of early twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil. I read an anthology of her work a year ago, so that was cool and unexpected.

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I realized that I’d accidentally skipped a whole section of the city I’d wanted to see, which happens when you lack a plan, map, and cellular data, so I doubled back to visit Notre Dame du Sablon but decided not to go inside. One church was enough for the day.

 

When it started to drizzle, I took a seat on a bench in the park front of Egmont Palace, which is not a palace but a mansion, to figure out a plan . . .

 

. . . and realized that I was right near the Great Synagogue. My dad’s voice in my head led me in that direction and I asked the four Belgian soldiers at the heavy side door whether I was allowed in. You can knock, they told me, but we’ve been knocking and no one’s answering.

 

I took that as a no because I know that the Jewish community of Brussels is almost always on high alert. Instead, I kept walking and came across a World War I memorial that wasn’t on the maps posted around the city.

 

Just beyond the memorial was a pretty view that really captures Brussels for me. The picnicking couple had actually climbed over a fence to get to their spot and they weren’t the only ones. You’ve got to love a city with freethinkers like that.

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The only actual plan I had upon arriving in Brussels was to visit Delirium Café, a Mecca for beer lovers. Walking there took me past Belgian souvenir shops that made my mouth water . . .

 

. . . through the absolutely stunning Grand-Place (or Grote Markt), which is impossible to capture in still imagery and where I took photos for several groups of tourists . . .

 

. . . past the famous Manneken Pis . . .

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. . . and down more than one little alley lined with restaurants and shops and decorated with fancy street lights. But get there I did!

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I wandered through what is essentially an entire complex dedicated to good beverages and then found a seat at one of the many bars. I ordered a beer and some cheese and took out my journal and a book, planning to stay put for a couple hours. When the bartender brought back my change, I was too distracted by where I was and watching all the people to remember that euros, unlike Singapore dollars, come in two-dollar coins instead of notes. I ended up leaving a really big tip but became friends with the bartender as a result. And with a French medical student an hour later who asked me whether the wifi was working (it wasn’t) and to help him understand a word in the English medical textbook he was reading. The student nodded approvingly when the bartender asked what kind of beer I wanted to try next, brought over two bottles for me to choose from based on my requests (local and dark), and waved away my wallet when I asked to pay before getting up to leave yet another hour later.

It was raining hard when I stopped for Mexican food on the street where I was staying. One thing I noticed throughout my travels is how spoiled I’ve been in Singapore and New York where everything – grocery stores, convenience stores, full service restaurants – is open at all hours. Europe closes early and after 9pm, one cannot be picky.

The following morning, though, was bright and sunny. I was heading out to Ghent and Bruges for the day but I’d return to Brussels for the night. Brussels is a city I was happy to explore and would be glad to spend more time.

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