Thursday, August 7, 2014

DAY 49 – 3 August 2014; Vienna to Bratislava

I have been behind on the blog posts for various reasons, lack of time being prime. Hence, despite a late night I woke up early so that I could complete the posts up to the day of arrival into Prague; Day 46 of the journey. Even with that the backlog remained two days. After completing day 46, during when I consumed two excellent cups of coffee made by Mrs. Sebastian, I walked around the kitchen garden that was her pride. Huge tomatoes, grapes, pears and berries stood witness to her green thumb. The apricot tree in the garden had stopped fruiting for the season, but the gorgeous jam she made with the bounty of the season was so good that I shamelessly sought a bottle of it to be exported to India! The garden also had vegetables that served her table well during the summer. I spent quality time with the wonderful couple, who had made our stay in Vienna extremely enjoyable, talking about life in Austria and Kerala. Comparisons, it is said, are odious, but they are inevitable when two cultures are talked about. I was surprised to learn that the newspapers for Sunday distribution are left in polythene bags overnight with a collection box on lamp posts! Thomas told me with utmost conviction that not a single issue would be taken from the bag without the amount for it being deposited in the box. I shuddered to think what would happen under such circumstances in India. Discipline and basic integrity is at the root of all such behaviour and so is concern for the dignity of individuals. Why do we lack these and only pride in being the largest Democracy in the world? Another matter that confused me is the argument we take in India that the way women dress is the prime reason for crime against women. If that were so many Western countries would have been stressed out dealing with crimes against women. Sometimes one has to carefully observe to confirm if some of them are even dressed, in Summer!

The biggest surprise of the morning was the breakfast; Puttu and Kabuli Chana, my favourite. If there was something I had missed during the journey it was just this. And here, in Vienna, it was royally presented on the table by Mrs. Sebastian. Though I politely tried to refuse a second helping I succumbed. Thomas had got Semmil, an Austrian Bun which was hard on the outside and soft inside. Despite a full stomach I had half a large bun with the outstandingly tasty Apricot Jam. Thomas agreed to guide us up to the exit leading to Bratislava, which was only about 80 kms away from Vienna. The goodbyes were interlaced with photography sessions. With the resolve to come back to Vienna sometime in the future I shifted gears, for I had not even flavoured one percent of the sights and fun Vienna had to offer, given the limited time we had planned in the City. But, thanks to Thomas and his wife, we made the made of it.
Before I even warmed up to the drive I reached Bratislava! The City is at the very edge of the border between Austria and Slovakia. The erstwhile part of Czechoslovakia became independent on 1 January 1993 from the Soviet and Communist yokes after a series of peaceful demonstrations. The country of over 5 million people consists of 80% Slovaks. Hungarians are the biggest ethnic minority with 9%. The large number of Jews that lived at the start of the WWII was dispersed by the Communist regime, I was told. Over 60% of the population is officially Roman Catholic. It joined the European Union in 2004 and the Euro Zone in 2009.

The magnificent modern bridge with a restaurant on the top is an iconic structure across the Danube. Rains in the past few days have increased the flow in the river and swelled it. As we drove across the Danube the majesty of it hit us with large barges and cruise vessels plying on it. We were escorted to the Sheraton Hotel by Avinash, who was deputed by Sirosh of Prosi in Vienna. The Hotel is almost on the banks of the Danube and had well appointed rooms. After check in and putting luggage in the room we left with Avinash for the Ganesh Utsav, an Indian Restaurant run by Viera, the contact provided by Sirosh. She and her team had gathered at the restaurant entrance to welcome us with flowers, smiles and pride. And what a welcome it was. She employs 17 Keralites in the restaurant and the Ayurvedic Centre. Almost all of them came to meet Lal, whose huge fans they are. We had many sessions of photography; many pictures went live on the social media almost immediately. Over a superb meal of idlis, chatni, sambar, Kerala Parota and chicken curry – all authentic in taste – Viera told us how she set up the restaurant to cater to her daughter’s demand for Ayurvedic food, which she had sampled in Somatheeram, Kerala. The Chef passed with flying colours.

Shortly after we had reached the restaurant it started raining heavily once again. The thunder and lightning would have done the Thulavarsham in Keerala proud. Viera and Avinash told us that the weather condition was unusual. We waited out more of the rain by when I had parked the car in a private parking lot of the restaurant. Viera was quite keen to accompany us on the sightseeing trip and she hired a taxi, the driver of which spoke excellent English. They took us to first appreciate the unusual structure of the old radio station, an upturned pyramid. In front of it is the Central Bank of Slovakia. The bank has a replica of the old coin of the country and is a favourite with visitors. Then we went to the Russian cemetery where lies buried over 8000 soldiers who died fighting the Germans in WWII. The memorial is a poignant one. The Bratislavian Castle was built in the 9th century. From atop the walls of the castle one can get fantastic views of the old and the new parts of the City. The new parts of the City are rectangular apartment blocks in vivid colours. Ancient Roman ruins are in the process of being excavated in the Castle premises. The St Martins Church is elaborate on the inside with wooden carved grottoes and sculptures. The external spires of the Church are gilded in gold. The Old Town set in narrow streets have busy restaurants, pubs and cafes that advertise local cuisine. Many modern statutes line the long walk; noteworthy among them being the “Man At Work” and “The Aristocrat”. The town square is a lively place, as are most of them. Then we took a long walk beside the Danube to reach the Sheraton Hotel. The oldest bridge that spanned the River was recently dismantled, as it was weak and unsafe even for pedestrian use, and the piers have been left untouched. It is said that the foundation of the piers are unsafe to be taken out for they are feared to be mined by the Russians! Today there are many bridges across the Danube in Bratislava, while the old rail cum road bridge was the only one then and had strategic importance.

After a short rest we walked to the Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar established in 1752. The restaurant serves its own beer and traditional Slovakian food. We had arranged with Viera in the afternoon to try out the local foods and drink and therefore landed up here. The lager, dark beer and the peer vodka were laced with chicken wings, honey glazed pork ribs, goat cheese pasta and Slovakian bread. A couple of hours went by effortlessly. The hotel staff also took us to the brewery and explained the process to us. The beers were a bit bitter than what we were used to in Europe thus far. The wonderful evening wound up after we had dropped Viera off at her house and returned to the hotel in a taxi. Seven weeks of the journey were over in which we had travelled 13 countries and 17500 kms – and also lost team mate. Today was Friendship Day. I made two excellent friends in Viera and Avinash in Bratislava.

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