Tag Archives: slovakia

Daytrip to Vienna

Of all the places in the world I’m hoping to visit before I get my passport stamped by that big customs & immigration office in the sky (or below?),  Vienna, Austria was never on that list. I don’t know why. It just never occurred to me.

I mean what few times I’d thought of Vienna I think I thought of high culture, classical music, maybe some sausages and well… to be 100% honest… Hitler and the horrors of World War II. It was a casual, cavalier but not a hostile ignorance.

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Prater Amusement Park – Vienna with Duncan

I wasn’t knowingly spreading this ignorance to anyone, because I knew I didn’t know the real Vienna and only had a vague idea of what it might be like planted in my head by however many years of (mostly) U.S. media osmosis. I had not so much as considered a Wikipedia search on the subject and since I wasn’t heading there anytime soon, there was no need to do a quick study of the facts was there now? Wrong.

During our Eastern European shoot for Season 2, we were heading to Bratislava, Slovakia (another place I knew absolutely nothing about before visiting) and Vienna was a mere 50 minutes or so by train or boat away. As you can see, for me at least, ignorance is no excuse for not visiting a place. Otherwise I’d never go anywhere. Point of fact, I submit that it could be one of the best reasons to visit.

“Will I like it? Who knows? I don’t know anything about it. Let’s go!” So we did, if only for a few hours.

Lucky for us our new pal Marek from our earlier shoot at Cafe Finska in Krakow, Poland (our very first stop on this journey) heard we were heading to Vienna. He heartily recommended we  reach out to UK ex pat and travel author Duncan J.D. Smith otherwise known as the Urban Explorer.

IMG_7225Duncan is  an extremely likable chap and a consummate gentleman. I could tell that when we first met him at the train stop in Vienna. He had graciously and unexpectedly spent his own money for train day passes for the entire crew. Cut my production cost and you have my gratitude. Do so while showing me a genuinely good time and you have a pal for life.

Duncan knows his stuff not only about Vienna but several ports of call in Eastern Europe including Budapest, where we were heading next. He hooked us up with one of his “Only in Budapest” guidebook as a parting gift. I would read it cover to cover on the train ride there. It would almost be like Duncan being there by our sides, whispering little know facts and anecdotes about places and sites we might not otherwise consider.

But back to Vienna, being with Duncan the actual author & guide in Vienna was immensely valuable to us. Duncan took us to those hidden spots right under the tourists’ noses that they almost always miss, even if they have another guide.

From the Tostmann Trachten Shop & Cellar, a traditional Viennese clothing store that offered much more than meets the eye in their basement (watch the show to find out) to Beethoven’s courtyard (I drank water from the same water fountain the great composer did many years ago) to showing us the grittier side of Vienna at the Graffiti walls down by the Danube, I was beginning to sincerely wish we’d allocated an entire episode and 5 days to Vienna.

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Duncan was one of those rare fact-filled but funny on camera guest that every travel host hopes for. I could relax and just have fun and hopefully have somewhat witty conversations and question and answers with Duncan on camera and the show just produced itself.. well, almost.

Not to say there weren’t moments when I was like “uh, huh.. this is exactly what I expected in Vienna”. Like when an arrogant prick (no pun intended, as you’ll see) of a Viennese took umbrage at our filming down in the historic, Mens’ Toilette downtown.

1) We had permission

2) The toilette had a unique story.. but I forget what it is at the moment (watch the show)

3) It was completely empty when we began filming

4) Our cameras were respectfully not pointed in anyone’s direction…

but this chap comes down and with a booming and authoritative voice says “that’s quiet enough.. cut the camera… your finished.. this is not Kazakhstan this is Vienna”.. The last part I think is what really pissed me off (no pun intended) and I was ready to go toe to toe with this arrogant ass who had no authority whatsoever on either the toilet or our filming there.

Interesting Graffiti acknowledging Austria's past.
Interesting Graffiti acknowledging Austria’s past.

But Duncan, being the gentleman that he is, somehow channeled his anger into something positive (a trick I’m still trying to master) and defused the situation.

We got our shot, the arrogant A^%hole finally left us alone and what’s more, we got the entire thing on camera. Scott, our camera guy told me later “I only cut when the guy who’s writing my check tells me to cut”. Great philosophy Scott and a good move. This toilet shot would have probably never made the cut, but now you can be guaranteed that it will.

But, for me at least, the most unexpected pleasure in Vienna came with a visit to the Prater Amusement Park .

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Not only was it a blast, but after our toilet incident, this was exactly what the doctor ordered to get me to humanize and like the Viennese people again and to understand, they have families, love their kids and are not just about high culture, history and lecturing to camera crews in toilets about civilized society. They need to shake it and have a good time too.

This amusement park is a feast for the senses. Don’t drink too much caffeine (or do any hallucinogens) before hand or it might just put you over the edge.

When you’ve had enough of “low culture” of serpent headed amusement rides or “freak” shows, I recommend you grab a pork knuckle at the famous Schweizerhaus at the fairgrounds along with a beverage of your choice. After all this I can honestly say, it was a fun, amazing trip to Vienna.

Pork Knuckle in Vienna
Pork Knuckle in Vienna

Like almost all first time destinations, I want to now go back, sans camera crew, and maybe explore on my own. But for this first time, I’m sure glad we had Duncan to guide us and show me a side of Vienna I’m 99.9% likely to have never seen had he not agreed to show us around.

Vienna is not an obvious “Raw Travel” destinations. It’s certainly not budget nor off the beaten path but you can see it Raw Travel style and we’ll show you how, when Bratislava / Vienna premieres this November. Stay tuned!

 

 

Bratislava Man…. Save Us Please!

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Bratislava Man

Bratislava got off to a relatively bumpy start. We were ripped off almost immediately on arrival by a dishonest taxi driver (gasp!) at the bus station where we arrived from Prague. As it would turn out our hotel was just around the corner. But our taxi driver decided to take a circuitous route in the opposite direction that took about 15 minutes and cost $20 euros (had we done our research we actually could have walked 5-7 minutes or at most paid $3-$4 euros for a taxi).

imageNow before you wonder how seasoned travelers like the Raw Travel Crew could possibly fall for such a brazen and obvious ploy, please keep the following in mind.

–          We were a TV crew of 3 folks with luggage and equipment.

–          We were on the run so much with limited internet access, that I am still weeks behind on this posting.

–          There was precious little information on the web about Bratislava’s transportation options.

Truth be told, I actually did know better than to trust a taxi driver at the bus station, a notorious trolling ground for “taxi sharks” (so named for their circumventing trains & bus stations in search for fresh “prey”) … but after walking away from the original guy and shopping around to the other waiting taxis a couple of times, we found no other taxi driver willing to drive us for less. They either did not or pretended not to understand us. Indeed it appears they were all in on the scam each waiting on their own victim as opposed to making an honest living.

To add insult to injury the taxi driver in question even went so far as to punch the address of our hotel into his digital radio receiver pretending it was a sophisticated GPS device (we only realized this later).

The driver was no gentleman robber either. He was crude, rude and probably would have charged us more had I not been questioning him about the route as soon as I got suspicious and threatened to get out then and there. He mercifully stopped circling and finally pulled up to the street over from our hotel. No, he would charge us 4x to 5x the going rate but wouldn’t even take us the few feet down the street to our hotel.

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The famous “Sewer Man” statue of Bratislava

Immediately after unpacking we headed down the street to search for food and discovered to our surprise that the bus station was actually less than 1/16th of a mile from our hotel. We realized with a mixture of humor and outrage we’d just been conned.

We considered confronting this “gentleman” on camera but alas, we had precious little time for revenge and each time we happened by the bus station he was nowhere in sight (perhaps his take from us was enough to take a few days off). Oh well, $20 Euros is not the end of the world for sure, but no one likes getting conned.

Our hotel was just about a mile outside the main old town and city center which would also prove to be a mistake for several reasons, mainly the fact that we were lost much of the time. This occurred because the map we were provided with by the hotel only showed the city center (even though they sat outside of it) and it proved to be fairly useless as most of the streets were either unnamed on the map or things were scaled like a coloring book with landmarks way out of proportion to actual distances.

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Old Town Bratislava is simply lovely

The hotel itself was a somewhat extravagant expense for us (we usually stayed in apartments but there were precious few available in Bratislava for some reason), but it turned to be mostly a false luxury. It reminded me of so much modern art. It looked good upon 1st glance but upon closer inspection was really just a mess.

They advertised air conditioning (it was super hot during our visit) and while our rooms did have a thermostat with a green light on the wall when the AC was switched “on”, as best we could tell there were no vents in the room and nothing happened. When I complained the AC wasn’t working, they simply said, “Oh it’s working”… and that was that. No investigation… nothing. We strongly believe the AC Thermostat was a prop and nothing more.

The staff, however, made up for these inadequacies by trying really, really hard to accommodate their lost and now slightly pissed off English speaking guests. They mostly failed, but I still must give them an “A” for a heck of an effort and I have to admit they were endearing in their incompetence. I really think they tried their best and while this isn’t little league baseball, I have to say that goes a long way in my book.

Blue Church Bratislava
The beautiful “Blue Church” in Bratislava

The fact that we were lost so often was doubly frustrating when you consider how small Bratislava is. Especially in comparison to the capital cities we’d visited so far. But the trams were easy to jump on and off and we ended up using them as often as possible. People were fairly generous with directions, young people in particular. Many of the older folks (even ticket agents at the train station) would simply wave you abruptly away if they didn’t speak English and would not make an effort to communicate. However, this may have been a consequence of 3 travelers with cameras which often puts folks on guard. In the few times I was able to get out on my own, I found almost all Bratislavans eager to help (case in point, when purchasing shampoo in the local grocery store, it was a team effort with lots of help from employees and other customers alike… none of which spoke English), regardless of language ability, which gives me hope to return again someday on my own.

With Brano of Authentic Slovakia Tours
With Brano from Authentic Slovakia Tours

I don’t want people to get the message that Bratislava is bad. To the contrary, it’s actually quiet lovely and after navigating the huge metropolis and throngs of tourists in Prague, it was a welcome break to be off the beaten path just a bit. I found Bratislava’s old town very charming and while the castle was bound to be underwhelming compared to Krakow and Prague (almost are compared to these), we were treated to one heck of a tour with our new pal Brano from Authentic Slovakian Tours. Brano is part of a group of young Slovakians trying desperately to get Bratislava up to speed on their tourism offerings and infrastructure. His tours are first rate and his company is growing as a result.

Another guy doing his part is Bratislava Man! No Bratislava man (AKA Tomas) is not a superhero but he is a good guy and even though we hooked up with him towards the end of our journey he did prove really helpful in getting us out of jam when we arrived to interview a local band Kto Chce Co Chce (Do What You Like)  on the outskirts of town and were greeted by a screaming, unreasonable, English speaking (but once again pretending not to) security gal.

Evidently the rehearsal space we were directed to was now a non-functioning, old chemical factory from back in the communism days and the security folks must have thought we were spies from the Cold War era. When she saw our cameras she basically flipped out. Eventually, thanks in no small part to Bratislava Man we were able to film and were treated to a great rehearsal from the guys.

With the real Bratislava Man
With the real Bratislava Man

Another cool thing about Bratislava is the wine. Just being a few miles from the border of Austria means that if you like Austrian wines, then you’ll probably equally love Slovakian wines for most likely, a fraction of the price. The climate is similar. The only difference being that in Slovakia, the wineries were state owned for many years until the fall of communism in 1989, so there was a blip in time when wine making in Slovakia meant putting out as much of the cheap stuff for the masses as possible. No more, however and the centuries old craft of wine making in Slovakia is back and better than ever. There are wine tasting bars all over Bratislava and we sampled the more modern style Trunk Wine Gallery owned by Vladimir Raiman. Mr. Raiman was as hospitable and knowledgeable as could be about Slovakian wine making.

In a way Bratislava felt like it is still trying to recover from the very heavy hand of Communism. The capitalist edict that the customer (or in this case the traveler) should be treated with respect is a bit foreign concept and left mostly to the younger generation of folks.

Folks like the laid back guys at the Wild Elephant Hostel. The owners and guest at the Wild Elephant were super cool. They allowed us freedom to shoot and interview their guests at will and we hope to offer some insight for some of our viewers just as to what a hostel experience REALLY entails. They even offered us rooms and I kind of wished we had taken them up on it.  After the interviews and a great meal (which I was able to “kind of” help them prepare) they were kind enough to take us on a tour of the town.

Bratislava Band Kto Chci Co Chce (Do What You Like)
Bratislava Band Kto Chci Co Chce (Do What You Like)

Ironically, the 2005 horror film “Hostel” was based on a fictional hostel in Bratislava and the owners of Wild Elephant told me that was one of the best things that could have happened to their business and Bratislava tourism in general. Many non regional visitors in particular, come to Bratislava specifically to visit a hostel and I suppose to see if they get chopped up as many of the protagonists in the movie (we did not and to my knowledge everyone we interviewed left Bratislava safe and sound).

I was feeling much better about Bratislava. But once again a dishonest taxi driver would try to ruin the good vibes.

It was time to leave, so on the way out of Bratislava we learned our lesson. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi. We were quoted a rate of $8 Euros. When we arrived to the train station the driver said “$12 Euros”… I of course protested and said it was $8 Euros. He acquiesced.

I gave him a $10 Euro Bill and simple math would dictate he owed me $2 Euros. Instead he returned me a single Euro coin (Both $1 Euro and $2 Euros come in coins) I suppose thinking I wouldn’t notice.

Guest from the Wild Elephant
Guest from the Wild Elephant

Again, I protested and again, he agreed and quickly gave me my other $1 Euro which I had been intending to use to tip him. Not anymore. This time it’s mostly on camera and if you watch this fall, you’ll see the drama unfold on Raw Travel.

Despite these small annoyances,  which by the way are as likely to happen in other parts of Eastern Europe if you don’t plan ahead, I still think Bratislava is a good spot to visit and I encourage you to check it out on your own.

But the tourism folks & governmental leaders of Bratislava need to be aware that until they get a handle on their out of control taxi drivers the travel & tourism industry may very well continue to struggle. It’s not fair for travelers to pay much more simply because they are ignorant upon arrival. Take it from me, they will get clued in quickly and when they do, will see Bratislava from a slightly more cynical point of view, as I have. Which is a shame because Bratislava has a lot to offer.

For the sake of our friends at Authentic Slovakian Tours, Bratislava Man, Wine Trunk & Wild Elephant, I sincerely hope Bratislava’s taxi & tourism industry get their acts together soon.

UP NEXT: One very cool thing about Bratislava is it’s close proximity to Vienna, just 60 miles away and  what would prove to be a great day trip for us. I’ll cover that next.