Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.

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Much More Moscow: Kremlin and State Armoury

After our first failed attempt at visiting the Kremlin, seeing it became the primary objective on our second morning in Moscow. We rallied in the hostel common room bright and early, then made our way back into the city centre. But before that, we had some goodbyes to say. Rach and Marti would be leaving us this morning, and travelling down into Eastern Europe rather and continuing on to St Petersburg. The two girls had definitely been a dynamic presence within our group, and I think most of us were sad to see them go. We went around the group taking turns to hug them goodbye, with warm wishes for the future and promises to stay in touch.

***

Maria had advised us that the tickets to all the Kremlin attractions, including the State Armoury, can sell out rather quickly, so we kept that in mind when we were planning our day. We were so punctual in arriving to purchase our tickets for the Kremlin that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the first people there, but somehow there was already a line of tourists waiting outside the security check point out the front of the complex. We purchased our tickets, checked our bags into the holding room and joined the end of the queue. I remembered back to something Kostya had said at Lake Baikal: “Yeah, in Russia… Russians don’t really understand the concept of a queue.” That can be very frustrating, especially in big crowded queues like this one. People would elbow their way in wherever possible, but I think by the end of our stay in Russia we’d learned to play by their rules, and we found that our group – small in comparison to some of the larger tours – was flexible enough to slip in between other people and slither ahead in the “queue”, non-existent in the eyes of Russians.

The Kremlin is essentially a huge palace complex that has been the hub of political power in Russia since forever, pretty much, and is surrounded by high walls made of blood red brick. It was once the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the central office for the royalty and tsars as well as communist leaders and democratic presidents alike. The red bricks surprisingly have nothing to do with the name of Red Square, and are no suggestion to communism either. Later, Maria would inform me that in Russian, the word for red has dual meanings, and that it had actually been the word for beautiful long before it was ever affiliated with the colour. The more you know. The main features of the Kremlin, though, are the churches inside, some of which have been transformed into museums and exhibitions. Most are still very well maintained in their original condition, designs that appeared to be far more modern than the palaces I observed throughout Asia, though can easily be admired as whole pieces of art in their architecture and decoration. They all follow similar Russian Orthodox designs on the outside, but the insides are far more intricate. Most places required the purchase of a permit to take pictures, but I don’t think any photos can really do justice to these places – especially not the camera on my iPhone.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

On this particular day, there appeared to be a lot going on inside the Kremlin. Once we were inside the main complex, we stumbled upon a huge congregation of priests who were all dressed up in their very formal robes. We asked Maria what was going on, but she confessed that she wasn’t a very religious person and so didn’t really know much about the occasion.
“Some angels have days, that are holy days that are assigned to them. I think today must be some angels day, and so they are praying and celebrating or something. I’m not sure which one though.” I still didn’t really understand, so I just settled for observing the crowd of devout men and watching them meander about the courtyards, looking rather excited as they chatted amongst themselves. We waited around for a little while, watching the men and listening to some of their singing while we waited for everyone to come outside of the final museum, before heading out of the Kremlin and back towards the ticket box.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

I’m not really sure of the specifics or details of what happened next, since I had been taking a pretty passive role in decision making, happy to visit whatever sights had been deemed must-see. We took our time looking through the churches and various exhibitions, and Maria told us that we would be able to arrive at the ticket booths at 11:15am in order to get tickets to the session at noon. Maria had collected the groups money in order to buy all the tickets, but I came along with her because I was going to attempt to buy a student ticket with my ID – it was my university student card from last year, and I was well aware that it had expired, but the foreign people rarely noticed the expiry date and the savings, particularly for entrance to the Armoury, were worth at least attempting to score the discount. However, literally as we got to the front of the line, the woman selling tickets announced something in Russian over the a loudspeaker. I waited tensely beside Maria, who finally turned to me to translate. “She said that there are no tickets left for the Armoury, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we should see what the others want to do.”

The others weren’t impressed. There was another session in a few hours, but I think most of the group had given up and decided we had wasted enough time trying to see these places, when it seemed like a constant uphill battle to even get into them. We ended up separating again after having some lunch, with some people going shopping, and others going for a longer, scenic walk back to the hostel. I returned to Red Square with Kaylah to take some photos, but after that I returned to the hostel via the metro to have a rest. I didn’t gotten a very good sleep the night before, and after talking to Tim yesterday we had decided we might like to go out for a few drinks and see some of the nightlife in Moscow. However, it rained rather heavily that night, which put a bit of a dampener on the mood. We went out to the Moscow Circus and had a beer before the show, but afterwards no one really seemed to be in a partying mood, so we called it a night and headed back to the hostel in the wet weather.

***

I was woken up the next morning by a knock on the door of my dorm. It was Kaylah.
“Tracy and Jenna and I are gonna head back to the Armoury. It’s early enough that we should definitely get tickets.” It was a struggle, but I rushed to ready and head out with them – inside the State Armoury is an opulent collection of treasures and artefacts that is considered one of the major attractions in Moscow, and even though I’d had another terrible nights sleep, I couldn’t justify sleeping in when I knew there was a group planning to head out that way one more time. “Okay, but we need to get back here before noon – we have to check out by then and I’ll have to get my stuff together.”

So off we went to the Armoury. I tried to purchase a student ticket, but unfortunately the woman working had been more attentive than the woman who sold us our tickets to the Kremlin, because she picked up on the expiry date – I still figured it was worth a try. But finally, after three days in Moscow and our numerous trips to this part of the city centre, we finally got into the Armoury. The collection of treasures inside was definitely worth it – all I could think of was how many millions of dollars these items would be worth. Goblets and plates and portraits and books and tea sets and dresses and weapons and – well, the list goes on, but everything was decorated with lavish jewels and pearls and I’m almost at a loss of words for how extravagant it was. It was the kind of extravagance that you only ever really saw in movies, and even then you knew they were most likely props that were worth only a fraction of the real thing. The diversity of the collection was also impressive. Jewelled sword handles and horse armour were in the room next to elegant pearl inlaid gowns, which were in between classical horse drawn carriages and a room full of velvet-lined thrones. We followed the directions of the audio guide tour, seeing the most important and interesting pieces in the collection and learning a bit about their histories.

While seeing the Armoury had been worth the rushed trip, it definitely made the rest of my morning a little more stressful. Firstly, as we walked down the stairs out of the exhibits, I dropped my audio guide. Despite having the safety strap around my wrist for the entire time we were in the museum, is was on the hard marble stairs that it slipped from my grip. It landed with a clatter, and I clutched at Kaylah’s arm when I saw that one of the buttons had lodged loose. I quickly scooped the handheld device up and shoved the button back into place, but the LED screen was starting a flicker, a sure sign that the machines life was about to expire. An endless stream of mumbled profanities escaped my mouth – we’d only needed to leave one form of ID as insurance when we’d collected the devices, but it was Jenna who had left her drivers licence with the desk.
“Just be cool, be cool Robert,” Kaylah had assured me. Once we got the desk, we placed our devices face down, showing the woman behind the counter their numbers, and she returned Jenna’s licence.
“Okay, be cool, stay cool, but go! Go! Go!” I’d whispered to the rest of the girls as we scurried out of the museum and back into the sunshine.

The second thing that made my morning just that bit more stressful was our returning time from the Armoury. I literally ran from the metro station back to the hostel, arriving at 11:58am. Perfect, I’d thought to myself, I literally only need two minutes to gather my things into my bag, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the hostel hadn’t been to sure I would arrive back in time, and I found my bag on the floor of the main hall with most of my possessions thrown into two big black garbage bags. Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been that bad. What actually sucked about this was that it wasn’t just my possessions – the bags was a mixture of my clothes and what may have been the possessions of one, or maybe two other guys from the room who weren’t part of our group. I felt kind of bag for that guy(s), because I’m not even positive they were supposed to be checking out, yet they’d had all their things scooped into a bag and thrown into the hall. I had to sit in the common room of the hostel and sort through all the bags to make sure I’d recovered all my things, while the rest of the group sat around waiting for me.
“I’m so sorry guys, sorry for holding us up,” I must have said a dozen times, but they all dismissed my apologies and said it was fine.
“We’ve got the entire day where we don’t have anywhere to be, so we’re not on a tight schedule, don’t worry.” I was glad they were being so nice about it, and as far as I could remember this was the first time I’d ever really had a problem or held the group up in any way, so they seemed fine with it.

Still, I had run all the way back to the hostel, and combined with the embarrassment of sorting though my bag and packing everything while the others patiently watched on, I found myself dripping with sweat. It was a warm, sunny day in Moscow, and I ended up mopping myself down with my towel and changing into a singlet and shorts. When I’d finally packed all my stuff up and put my pack in the storage room, we headed off as a group to get some lunch.
“Wow, Robert,” Don had said as we walked beside me, “You look like you’ve just had a shower or something.”
“Yes, Don, I’m a little sweaty,” I said, feeling a little testy and unable to hold back the sarcasm. “Thanks for pointing that out. I would rather have had a shower, but I’m actually just really sweaty. ” I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in a very good mood for the rest of the afternoon.

***

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The rest of the day was spent as a group, hanging out in a park to eat some street food lunch, visiting a popular Russian market, and finding a few restaurants and bars to have a few drinks in and just hang out, enjoying each others company. I think the long train ride had really brought a lot of us together, but it was nice to hang out with each other in a different, relatively normal environment, although the absence of Rach and Marti was strangely noticeable. But after we whittled the afternoon away, Alyson and Tim and myself had a few more drinks at a pub just near the hostel, and eventually it was time to head to the train station to catch the midnight train to St Petersburg.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

Maria had met us back at the hostel and taken us to the station, and made sure we’d all gotten on the train safely. “There’s two places empty?” she had asked us, and we reminded her that Marti and Rach had left us the day before, forfeiting their tickets for that section of the journey. “You should come with us to St Petersburg, Maria!” someone had said jokingly. At first she had just smiled and laughed, but five minutes later she stuck her head into our cabin, where Tim, Tracy, Jenna and I were preparing our beds for our final night in transit. “I think I am going to come to St Petersburg. I have a friend who I have been saying I will visit, but I have never been, and it’s been, oh, I have been saying I will go for four years or something.”

We were all a little stunned, but we couldn’t help but laugh. Maria had seemed like quite a lax and easy-going woman, and while it had been a little frustrating when she hadn’t known some things about Moscow that we might have expected from our guide, I couldn’t help but applaud her spontaneous nature that told her that getting a train to another city, with absolutely nothing except a phone, wallet and the clothes on her back, was a perfectly good idea. I guess I learnt something from Maria that night, because with my plans for the rest of my time in Europe being just as unplanned and flexible, I was going to have to learn to be just as swift and spontaneous when it came to making decisions about my travels.