Slovakia Two Ways with Emerald Waterways
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Star continued her weeklong Danube Delights itinerary this morning as we arrived in our second country – and second capital city – of the trip. Today, we’d explore Bratislava, Slovakia in two ways: first, with an orientating walking tour of the historic city center, and then with a visit to a local village in the afternoon for a look into the life of an average Slovakian. The latter is part of Emerald Waterways’ complimentary EmeraldPlus excursions that are designed to provide culturally-enriching experiences ashore.
Up until 1919, Bratislava was known as Pressburg. Today, it is the only national capital that literally borders two independent countries; in this case, Austria and Hungary. Its current name is also a lot of fun to say: Brat-ees-lava. Bonus points if you can roll the initial ‘r’ like the locals do. Bratislava is located between kilometres 1862 to 1874 along the Danube, where kilometre zero is situated near the Black Sea.
You’ll hear about Velvet a lot in the history of Bratislava – but not in the Stanford White, Red Velvet Swing kind of way. Submerged in the communist regime of the Eastern Bloc, the citizens of Bratislava were among the first to anticipate the fall of Communism and the start of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In 1993, Bratislava became the new capital of Slovakia following the Velvet Divorce that resulted in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. This created the countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic that exist today.
It’s hard to imagine in 2014, but this cruise that we’re on simply would not have been possible 25 years ago. On my first visit here in 2012, one local told of how simply crossing the bridge that spans the Danube – which leads to neighbouring Austria – would have been reason enough to be shot prior to 1989.
Today’s Bratislava is far more lighthearted – and, if you’re a movie lover, absolutely nothing like the city depicted in the 2005 Eli Roth horror film Hostel, which caused vocal condemnation by the Slovakian government over the film and its inaccurate depiction of Bratislava as a dangerous, murderous town. Interestingly, the film wasn’t even shot here; it was lensed in the Sleeping Beauty-esque town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic that guests will have the chance to visit in a few days’ time.
At 0900, our walking tour of Bratislava departed the Emerald Star. Guests could pick any one of five groups to join, with the fifth group being geared exclusively for gentle walkers who want to move at a more relaxed pace.
I chose to join Group 4, based solely on the highly scientific principal that it was the first one I saw as I disembarked the Emerald Star. I was last in Bratislava about a year and a half ago, and truthfully didn’t need to take the walking tour, but I was eager to see how Emerald Waterways handled their excursions.
In truth, their excursions and guides are as good as any other line. Our guide was knowledgeable and informative, and though she stuck to the same route through town that I experienced on my previous visit to Bratislava, she hit all the right notes and even imparted a larger degree of history on us.
After the tour, we were welcomed to enjoy Bratislava on our own, or head back to the ship for lunch. I wanted to explore the city, so I opted to stay in town and quickly found myself an outdoor café called the Green Tree Caffe to sit and relax in. I ordered a Spiced Chai Latte – for the rock-bottom price of €1.90, including tax.
After 30 minutes of caffeinated people watching just adjacent to Michael’s Gate – which dates back to the 13th Century – I decided it was time to shuffle on. Some photos of my morning in Bratislava:
Around Noon, I thought about heading back to the Emerald Star at her berth to enjoy lunch. As good as the food onboard is, I had to try some local Slovakian food, so I found myself sitting on the patio of a pub called Slang Pub, on Bratislava’ s tree-and-fountain-lined Einsteinova street, at Einsteinova 23.
I ordered a pint of the local beer, Zlaty Bazant, and a Slovakian specialty known as bryndzove halusky, which is described as being ‘dumpling-like.’ I actually think it is closer to German Spatzle, but it comes on a plate with sauerkraut and bacon bits. At €3.99, I was expecting something appetizer-sized. Instead, my dish was twice as large as I thought it would be. It was also spectacularly tasty.
Total cost of my large beer with an equally large lunch: €5.88. Even with the exchange rate of $1.44 to the Canadian Dollar, that’s still a steal of a deal even in my native currency. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of enjoying a few select meals ashore; it gives you an appreciation for the richness of their culture and their traditional delicacies.
Coming back onboard at 13:00, I brewed myself a fresh Café Latte from the wondermachine in the Lounge to keep my energy up for my next adventure: our inland journey this afternoon to visit a real Slovakian family
Our EmeraldPlus excursion this afternoon departed the Emerald Star at 14:30. Four coaches were parked adjacent to the pier in Bratislava, waiting to whisk us to the small village of Senkvice, approximately 40 minutes to the north. From there, each coach was split up into groups of 10. Each of those groups of 10 would go to a separate private residence for an afternoon with a local family.
Our host for the afternoon was Ella. She’s lived in Slovakia all her life, and remembers well how things were under the Communist regime. But she doesn’t speak unkindly about it; in fact, the said that in many respects, locals found it easier under Communism because they knew where they stood: they had a job, they had a house, and they had a purpose. Perhaps it wasn’t what they wanted, but they had security.
Removed of the communist security blanket in the 1990’s, many folks suddenly found themselves paralyzed with fear: the fear of making the wrong decision. When you spend the better part of your adult life being told what to do, suddenly having options can be a dangerous thing. Now, that’s not to say that Ella wanted Slovakia to return to Communism – far from it. But it was interesting for me as a North American to hear, because the only thing we really hear about Communism can be summed up as: Communism bad. No one really looks at the ramifications of undoing that system.
On our visit, we got to try out hand at making a traditional Christmas delicacy that is typically enjoyed on December 24. Which I found particularly interesting, as I’ll be back in Bratislava in December for the Christmas Markets. Made with sugar, flour, vanilla and cinnamon, the batter is poured atop a griddle and then pressed to create an oversized wafer that can be enjoyed as-is, or rolled with or without filling.
I did alright – I wasn’t great, but I didn’t suck either. I don’t suspect I’ll quit my day job, though. Ella says that she can do up to 80 of these – perfectly – in a single hour. The ten of us on the tour did two or three barely passable ones apiece, and it took us 40 minutes! I doubt we’ll quit our day jobs any time soon.
After that, we enjoyed homemade chocolate cake and fresh coffee and tea in her backyard. It was one of the most interesting experiences I think I’ve had anywhere. She spoke very little English, and we spoke no Slovakian, but through our guide acting as our interpreter, we were able to communicate, ask questions, and generally enjoy ourselves.
Two huge positives: one, groups are intimate and split up. This would never work if you put the entire coach complement in a single place. Two: it gives guests a look at how locals live and what their traditions are. For example, Slovakians don’t eat turkey at Christmas; they eat fish instead.
The verdict on the EmeraldPlus excursion? I absolutely loved it. This is one of Emerald Waterways’ most compelling features, and something I wish other lines would do more of. That these are offered complimentary – particularly when there’s a 40-minute coach ride in each direction involved – speaks highly of the line’s dedication to providing interesting and different experiences ashore.
Following our tour, our Cruise Director Daniela held an informal German Language class in the Horizon Lounge, followed by our briefing about our day ahead in Vienna tomorrow. Dinner in the Reflections Restaurant followed, and though the strange menu situation remained unchanged, the food was just as excellent as it was last night.
This evening, we set sail from Bratislava under a darkening sky as the last embers of daylight faded from sight. While it was still dusk out, we passed a veritable conga line of river cruise ships headed eastbound. There’s something beautiful about river cruise ships all lit up at night passing by; one ship – TUI Maxima – even honked their horn at us, and we responded in kind. We even sailed past our pseudo fleetmate, Scenic Diamond, one of Emerald Waterways’ parent company Scenic Cruises’ “Space Ships.”
One interesting thing I notice when I step out on-deck to watch the other river cruise ships sail past: their lounges are largely devoid of people, even though it’s only just after 22:00 (or 10p.m.) as I write this. That’s not the case here: ours is still packed with people enjoying the evening!
Tomorrow, Emerald Star arrives in my absolute favorite city: Vienna, Austria. I’ve been to Vienna four times before, but it’s one of those places that I feel oddly – and intimately – connected to. The real challenge, then, will be simply falling asleep tonight. On my very first river cruise three years ago, I had the feeling on the first few days that I couldn’t sleep, or I would miss something. As I write this, we’re sailing past a cute little town on our starboard side. There’s a river cruise ship passing us on our port side. With so much to see and do, river cruising is unlike any other vacation you can take.
They may be new, but Emerald Waterways is doing a fine job of living up to that expectation.
Emerald Waterways, Budapest to Nuremberg
|Saturday, July 12, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Emerald Waterways' Emerald Star in Budapest; Welcome Aboard Dinner|
|Sunday, July 13||Budapest, Hungary||Guided tour of Budapest including Fisherman's Bastion and Castle Hill|
|Monday, July 14||Bratislava, Slovakia||Old Town walking tour; EmeraldPlus excursion for tea with a local Slovakian family|
|Tuesday, July 15||Vienna, Austria||Panoramic "Ringstrasse" tour of Vienna; free time and optional Schonbrunn Palace Tour and Viennese concert.|
|Wednesday, July 16||Vienna / Durnstein / Melk, Austria||Guided tour of Melk Abbey; guided tour of Durnstein|
|Thursday, July 17||Linz, Austria / Passau, Germany||Walking tours & free time in Linz and Passau; Optional full-day tour to Salzburg, Austria|
|Friday, July 18||Regensburg / Weltenburg, Germany||Guided tours of Regensburg & Weltenburg Abbey; optional traditional Bavarian entertainment excursion|
|Saturday, July 19||Nuremberg, Germany||Disembark & onward journey home.|