Tuesday 29th May 2007, Bratislava, Slovakia, continued
The campsite we are using is the only one for Bratislava. While basic, Spartan even, it is very conveniently located with a tram at the entrance that carries us slowly but cheaply right into the heart of the city dropping us outside Macdonalds. For the return journey we simply wait for it outside the Bratislava 24 hour Tesco!

A man in a bit of a hole! Bratislava

Once a major city in Czechoslovakia, following the fragmentation of the country Bratislava is now the capital city of Slovakia. It must have been a difficult role to undertake. New embassy buildings, government offices and a Parliament would need to be created.

Many years ago when meeting up with Hubert in Budapest, we had taken the ferry and train from London to Vienna. There we travelled by hydrofoil down the flooded Danube to Budapest. On the way we passed through Bratislava when it was still part of a united Czechoslovakia. We said then that one day we would visit the city which looked so attractive with its castle and impressive baroque buildings. It has taken nearly forty years but at last we are here.

Once settled onto the campsite we went down into the city and wandered around the cobbled streets and magnificent squares. There is much of beauty to see in the historic centre which we will discover in more detail tomorrow. Much of the suburbs however, are industrialised and not at all attractive. There is the usual ugly graffiti, buildings look shabby, paintwork is peeling and railings are broken and rusty.

Primate's Palace, Bratislava

Opera, Bratislava

Rococo doorway, Bratislava

Redoute seen from beside the Danube, Bratislava

Danube, looking upriver towards Vienna, Bratislava

Main Square, Bratislava

Main Square, Bratislava

Wednesday 30th May 2007, Bratislava, Slovakia

Welcome to Bratislava

This morning the temperature had suddenly plummeted from around 30 yesterday to 14 today. For this we are actually grateful! Sightseeing is so much easier and we feel less weary. However, after also finding that the campsite showers only provide cold water in short bursts so violent they are physically painful, we almost gave up and moved on from this rather unsavoury campsite. No doubt tomorrow morning we will regret that we didn't but generally we feel it has been a day well spent around Bratislava.

We decided to stay on the tram beyond the city centre as it appeared from our map to go up to the castle, overlooking the Danube. We discovered too late that it actually goes into a tunnel under the castle and terminates in a rather desolate wasteland surrounded by ugly blocks of flats at an area called Chatam Sófer – or Chatham Sofa as we call it in English. This, we have decided, is to the Slovakian Republic what the Ottoman was to the Turkish Empire. It was easy to find once we got down from the tram as there was nothing else half so elegant in this part of the city.

Chatham Sofa, Bratislava

Tightly wrapped in pullovers and jackets we climbed the hill to the castle where we arrived red cheeked and wind blown. There were excellent views of the city from the castle ramparts and it was strange to think that many of the modern buildings and bridges we were looking out over had not even been built when we'd passed by on the hydrofoil so many years ago!

Castle, Bratislava

View of the Danube from the castle, Bratislava

We made our way down into the city to the President's Residence to see if the present resident President was in residence. There was a ceremony taking place as we arrived and as nobody else was watching we thought we'd better offer some support. So we watched through the railings as the National Guard lined up beneath the country's flag, the red carpet was laid out and the band played the Slovakian National Anthem. Eventually front door of the palace opened and the present hesitant resident President himself walked out, accompanied by what we assume was a visiting president or head of state. As we watched, the guards presented arms and looked very smart while the present resident President and the present resident President's president friend (who is unprecedentedly resident) walked the carpet inspecting the guards. The resident Presidents then returned to the present President's residence and the guard marched off. It was all rather an anticlimax really.

Inspecting the guard at the President's residence, Bratislava

Presidents in residence, Bratislava

President's residence, Bratislava

After a hot coffee inside one of the city's pleasant cafes we visited the Cathedral of St. Martin where, from the 16th century after the Turks overran Hungary, the Hungarian kings and rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were crowned. On the top of the spire is a symbolic gilded crown on a gold cushion while inside a list of all the Hungarian and Austrian rulers, including the Empress Maria Theresa, is painted on the wall. Internally the Cathedral is a particularly interesting building with a typically Hungarian statue of St. Martin, more a hussar than a centurion, sharing his cloak with a beggar and a treasury of ecclesiastical vestments, candlesticks and chalices. There are exquisite animal carvings on the altar pews and an icy crypt filled with walled-up bodies from the 18th and 19th centuries.

St. Martin cutting his cloak to share with a beggar, Cathedral, Bratislava

Hungarian monarchs crowned in the Cathedral, Bratislava

One of the carvings in the Cathedral of St. Martin, Bratislava

Floor tiles in the Cathedral, Bratislava

Skeletons in the crypt of the Cathedral, Bratislava

Crypt of the Cathedral, Bratislava

We tried to visit the University Library but were unceremoniously denied access and it was indicated that we should leave. Attempts to explain our interest to anyone who could speak any of the list of languages we offered to try to communicate in met with indifferent stares and we were forced to give up and leave. It was the most unfriendly experience we have ever encountered at a library, or indeed anywhere, during our travels. Round the corner we discovered the British Council where they were far more friendly and told us we were welcome to look around. It didn't take us long to discover cheap fish and chips was on offer in their café along with free copies of today's Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph. So we caught up on the British press as we ate. An oasis of Britain so far from home! We also took advantage of their free internet access for an unsuccessful search to discover what the country's President was up to today - difficult when we don't know his name.

When we crossed from Hungary yesterday we still had some forints with us which we exchanged for Slovakian kronas at the border, so we've not really known how much money we have or what it's worth. After paying for lunch today and keeping back campsite fees we worked out we had about 80 pence left, not enough for some wine this evening! We don't want to take money out with us tomorrow as the Czech Republic has a different currency again, so we withdrew a minimum amount from our bank and after buying our wine had enough left over to blow on entry to the national art collection. This was really rather good. We explored the contemporary collections in the Esterhazy Palace before crossing to another, linked building where there were works by Slovakian artists (or whatever nationality they were at that time as the countries of central and eastern Europe have always been so fluid). These included 16th century religious paintings and some exquisite sculptures in wood, mainly of the Virgin and Child. Next we explored the European art collections with several works from the Netherlands and even some from England including one by William Hogarth. In France, Britain, Germany, Italy or Spain the galleries would have been crowded with visitors, and much of the work exhibited here is of comparable worth, but today we were the only visitors to the gallery all afternoon! We were accompanied from room to room by a whole host of attendants who found having something to do for a few moments relieved the usual boredom! It's such a pity the collections are not better visited and we are lead to wonder how the money is found to pay the salaries of the staff. All they got from us today was a couple of pounds and we were even given a discount as retired people!

Finally, as we returned to catch the tram back to Modestine we discovered the "Blue Church". This is an Art Nouveau church painted bright blue inside and out. We were surprised at the large number of people calling in for a few moments quiet reflection on their way home from work. Nearby stands a building used as a school. It is of the same era and style as the church but has not been restored. It is crumbling, the paintwork peeling, with broken guttering and rusty railings. There is still so much to do in many of the former Socialist countries before their historic cities regain their full splendour, and they are reliant on European funding to provide much of the necessary financial support.

Art Nouveau church, Bratislava

Thursday 30th May 2007, Trebric, Czech Republic
We were very weary by the time we arrived here and beginning to get desperately low on fuel for Modestine and somewhere to spend the night for us. That's the main disadvantage of travelling across country rather than following the main routes or motorways. We see more of the little villages, the vineyards, lakes, rivers and countryside with its wooded hills topped by romantic castles and the wide flat plains of arable crops and grassland where the fields glow red from the poppies crowded in with the grass. We also see the roadsides lined with ripening cherry trees and elderflower blossoms and get waved at by children as we pass through the villages. These routes take far longer and can be more tiring though our mileage is surprising. When we finally refuelled Modestine she'd travelled 480 miles on 39 litres of diesel. Even for a car that's very reasonable and she's been carrying our entire home!

Without any regret we left the dirty, uncared for and rather creepy campsite on the edge of Bratislava this morning. It had served its purpose but we'd never use it again. Needless to say, neither of us tried the cold showers before we left though Ian did draw a felt-tip man on the gents' loos and showers to save other ladies from Jill's embarrassment when she used the gents, open plan showers yesterday by mistake! The only one that was labelled had Z for ladies on the door. Obvious if you are Slovakian but none of the campers were, although the tramps who were rifling the rubbish bins on the site almost certainly were.

We stopped to look around the agreeable little town of Modra in the heart of the wine growing region. Adding all our bits of local money together we discovered we still had just over £3 left to spend before we crossed into the Czech Republic (CZ) and a local wine cellar was offering a daily menu for 75 kroners - about £1.50 We were served bowls of spicy meat and vegetable soup with slices of bread followed by four slices of savoury dumplings with lamb, onions and cabbage braised in a sweet white wine sauce. So ample was the meal we were unable to finish it! Ian also lashed out 9 kroners (18 pence) on a glass of sparkling white wine made on the premises. We were unable to find a common language with the staff so we emptied our purse onto the table and left. We hope the meagre few extra coins were not an insult.

A nice place to empty our purse, Modra

Our last Slovakian kronas

A little French sophistication – or not quite, Modra

At Senica we stopped in a side road to make a cup of coffee as the driving, the warmer weather today and the ample lunch had made Jill feel sleepy. Afterwards we took a stroll through the cemetery we'd chanced to park beside. It was a sea of flowers with every grave smothered. Closer investigation showed them all to be artificial and left there for months after the funerals with oil lamps still burning in front of many of the graves. What sobered us though was that almost without exception the dates on the graves showed the inhabitants to have been born considerably more recently than us! It's quite a shock to realise how brief the average life span is in this part of central Europe and does rather explain why we see so few elderly people about. We still feel cheats being retired, yet we are already five to ten years older than the majority of the recent burials in that cemetery!

Cemetery in Senica

Soon we reached the border with CZ and crossed into Hodonín. This seemed a more affluent town than those we'd left in SK but here too the lovely buildings were badly marred by ugly graffiti. All the towns of central Europe suffer from the same unsightly problem. After some difficulty and a long walk we managed to get some local money from a cash machine. There are parking charges in the town centre but as we had no money we couldn't park. Unless we parked we couldn't get any money! We have now ascertained that CZ and SK both use the kroner but the CZ one is worth slightly more (2.5 pence rather than 2 pence.)

And so we reach the Czech Republic

Our first Czech kronas

It soon became obvious that we would never reach Prague today and the only map we have of CZ is on a minute scale. We continued across country for hours heading for Trebric where our outdated guide book said there had been a campsite ten years ago. When we stopped in the town for Modestine's fuel we were also directed to the campsite. It is as pleasant as last night's was horrid. Spotlessly clean it is little more than half the price and offers hot showers, a kitchen with all appliances including a freezer and cooker, and a dining room with electricity for anyone needing more space than a tent can provide. There is also a pleasant bar by the river and a barbecue where a group of young people are sitting around a camp fire cooking their supper. It is peaceful and feels safe and comfortable. So not all campsites in the former Czechoslovakia are as austere and dirty as we'd begun to fear.

Friday 1st June 2007, Jesenice, near Prague
Last night at the garage in Trebric Ian 's well trained eye discovered a road atlas of the Czech Republic which also marked on camp sites. It was £2 well invested and has made our travelling today far more enjoyable than it otherwise might have been. It enabled us to drive towards Prague along the tiny rural roads. We passed through villages which by now were quite different from those of Hungary that had continued in the same style right through Slovakia. Incidentally, most villages we passed through had a loud speaker system whereby messages could be transmitted to the entire community. Several were sending messages to every street and farmstead as we passed through. They seem to us to be extremely loud, anti-social and intrusive into personal privacy. We imagine that they are a legacy from former times when they were used as a vehicle for Communist propaganda to enthuse the comrades to work on behalf of the beloved Party.

The landscape changed too, becoming more hilly and wooded. The fields were still enormous, growing mainly arable crops and clover. We were pleased though to see a few cattle beginning to appear in the fields again. Their lives are very short and miserable so it seems only right that they should enjoy fresh grass and sunshine for part of it. Ever since we left Switzerland all the animals seem to have disappeared. We are left to conclude that they are housed permanently inside. This was borne out today by the sight of several long, low, miserable looking farm units where the smell indicated they were housing livestock. It must be a horrible existence for them.

As we approached one village we found our route completely barred. The village was appropriately named Vokov!! They don't mince their words these Czechs! Whichever way you cared to read it (backwards or forwards) we were obviously not welcome!

We followed a tiny country road through some very pleasant scenery of woods, hills and fields of wheat mixed with poppies, cornflowers, large white daisies, wild pansies and dog roses. Around lunch time we reached the town of Benesov. Its main claim to fame is that nearby stands Konopiste Castle. This had been the home of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand who purchased the estate in 1887. (Remember our report from Sarajevo where he was murdered on a state visit in 1914, precipitating WW1?)

Although we did not go around the castle, we explored the grounds which are very pleasant with peacocks in the rose gardens, huge hot houses, a bear pit in the moat and the largest St. George and the dragon collection in Europe! There are 1,506 different pieces all personally collected by the Archduke! He was in competition with King Edward VII at the time so presumably there is another collection almost as large in England somewhere! The collection includes anything connected with St. George regardless of period or merit - worm eaten 16th century wooden statues, early icons, painted plates, engraved glass, a bed head and even a commode with the saint and the dragon on the lid!

Konopiste Castle seen from the gardens

St. George's gallery, Konopiste Castle

Gardens at Konopiste Castle

According to a display panel in English that we discovered, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was passionate about hunting and kept his woods stocked with peasants especially for this purpose!!! One is led to wonder whether it was altogether surprising he was assassinated if that was the way he treated his vassals!

From Benesov we drove, still on minor roads, to the edge of Prague where we are camped on a site about 13 kilometres from the centre with transport links in. This place is such a contrast with Bratislava with CCTV everywhere around the campsite. It is the first place we have seen more than a couple of camping cars together on a site since we left Dubrovnik. We are surrounded by smart vehicles from Germany, Holland, Denmark and France so the bus into town tomorrow will probably be quite crowded!