From Bratislava, our next big stop was Krakow, Poland. However, the train journey between the two is an overnight affair, and, one of us being extremely prone to motion sickness, that did not seem wise. So we chopped our little sojourn into two trips, one from Bratislava to Zilina, a tiny little town located along the rail line in Northern Slovakia, then on from Zilina to Krakow. In theory, each leg should have taken about four hours, if I remember right.
Before departure, a little breakfast swathed in the pink plastic lobby of the Design 21 hotel.
The spread was unexpectedly satisfying, starting with a serious cup of coffee,
followed by three perfectly cooked fried eggs, yolky as all get-out, with some of that amazingly dense pumperknickly Euro bread and some cold cuts. Oh, and of course, a little tomato. I could not have been any more pleased with that meal than I was.
Over at the train station, things started to look distinctly more communist
We started that journey on a similar train to the one we had ridden from Budapest to Bratislava, which deposited us in some tiny town for a transfer, and then, we loaded ourselves on to what will I shall now and forevermore refer to as the Eastern European torture train. The layout of the train was not your typical hallway style with two seats on each side. It was one long hallway oriented along the side of the train, with windows on one side and doors that gave entry into little rooms on the other. The whole train. All rooms. We committed to one of them to find that it was equipped with six stiff backed, non reclining jumpseats, three along one wall, three along the other; legs all commingled in the middle.
And then, the rest of the train filled up. Like, totally and completely FILLED UP. That tube was absolutely lousy with Slovaks crowding the hallway, standing, sitting, squatting, whatever. Of course, my body then graced me with a suddenly full bladder, which I was stuck with for the duration; there was not the slightest possibility that I could navigate through the sea of people to find a bathroom that very possibly did not exist in the first place. We were altogether backed into our little room. To say it was cramped would be an understatement, but, at least we had a window to jump out of should things go awry. Also, we had it pretty good, being in seats and all. One woman stood outside our room holding a toddler in her arms the ENTIRE time. I’m talking hours. My god. I just cannot even.
The train left the station at a snails pace, and to all of our dismay, it continued along at that clip for the entire ride. A ride that was supposed to take two hours but took three; the train constantly jerking to a stop then sitting motionless, inexplicably, in the middle of nowhere for painfully long stretches. We were completely baffled as to what was going on on that thing. All the while, wedged into our little corners, a mess of legs between us.
When we figured, with our best methods of deduction, that our stop was about up, we strapped on our backpacks and made our way (carefully) to the door to wait for our moment. Only the torture train was so slow and late, that our stop was still about twenty minutes away. During that twenty minutes the four of us were stuck standing in the narrow hallway with our packs on, which rendered us unable to turn or do anything other than stare straight ahead, at the back of the person in front of us. Naturally, people kept trying to awkwardly squeeze by us, and we stood, not having any clue as to when this particular torture would end. I knocked on the door to the conductors (or someone official, at any rate) office, which I was standing next to, to see if we missed our stop, but, she just ignored me. I imagined her napping inside.
I rewarded myself with the national snack of Slovakia upon arrival.
We cabbed to the Hotel Galileo http://www.hotelgalileo.sk/, which provided perfectly fine accommodations for our overnight stay. It was located in a surprisingly green, woodsy, residential part of town.
While Zilina is the fourth most populous city in Slovakia, at 85,000 deep, it is still quite a small town. So small in fact, that I had not one food destination up my sleeve, my research from the states yielding zero results. The person working the front desk referred us to a pizzeria in a little complex a couple of blocks back the way we came, on the other side of the street. The complex had a large empty square in the middle, with what looked like a (closed) beer garden. There was this sign, letting us know that during operating hours, there would be an opportunity to feast upon our American favorites, with a Y on the end.
We would take to calling sandwiches “bagety’s” from then on. Like, we still do. Inside the pizzeria, the decor was pretty much a hotel breakfast room, circa 1985.
We ordered a salad with tuna, having had such success with the same in Budapest, a prosciutto and mushroom pizza, a bottle of wine, and a couple of beers. Our server told us it was her second day as she struggled to figure out where the wine was (locating it was an involved process, requiring backup from the entire front of the house) and/or how to open it. We should have known then to switch tactics to beer, but, Randi and I are dumb. The wine arrived, cloaked in a fine layer of dust, and, as I took my first sip to the fine vocal stylings of Patrick Swayze crooning “She’s like the Wind,” (did you know that? Patrick Swayze is the actual vocalist on that track? Whhaaaaaaa??!) my palate was met with the most horrific, sharp, rotten, swill I’ve had…well, possibly ever.
The salad was the culinary equivalent to the wine; iceberg lettuce topped with hunks of tinny tasting canned tuna, a few tomatoes, tossed with no, and I am not kidding here, NO, dressing. It was borderline inedible.
Things did not improve when our half raw pizza appeared, bedazzled with slices of ham as opposed to prosciutto and a sprinkling of raw button mushrooms.
Let us never speak of that meal again.
We took an exploratory walk then, down the main road towards the town center
After about a half mile we found the small, sweet, cobblestoned square, where a little outdoor market was being held in the middle, the perimeter lined with a church and a smattering of restaurants.
We kept walking and eventually stumbled upon the “History Pub.” Upon entry we were hit with what seemed like billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, only to find that there was one person in the whole place. Yes, he was smoking, but the “History” in the name seemingly refers to the mark that every single smoker to ever grace that bar has left upon the curtains, walls, and booths; it was a straight up olfactory assault. The back of the bar displayed a few bottles of hard alcohol, some, wearing hats. Totally normal.
The options were…odd, and after much debate, we settled upon a round of fernet citrus (sadly, that is not a joke). What we got in response to our order, however, was the word “NO,” a shake of the head, and something about Czech alcohol. Alright buddy, I guess we’ll have to stick with beer. Thanks for nothing. Later on in our trip we learned that Czech alcohol was banned at that time due a crime ring that was selling counterfeit bottles of the stuff, laced with shit that was killing folks. So really, thanks buddy!
One round of beers and a thick layer of carcinogen later, we emerged to walk back towards our hotel. This lovely snack stand appealed to me very much, but it was, to my dismay, unmanned.
This Tahoe-esque cabin soon appeared, where, much like every watering hole in that part of Europe, one must descend into a smoke-laden dungeon in order to find the actual bar.
In terrible need of fresh air, we took our drinks to the deck upstairs, to sit and sip in the crisp Slovakian night
The bar had a small offering of salty snacks; chips and the like. Not wanting to die without knowing what “Slovakia chips” taste like, I bought these. They were good, a little weak on the paprika palatants, but good.
Fearfully, we strolled back towards the complex of the dreaded “pizzeria” of yore, looking, with bated breath for other options. There was one door with some activity, located under the “Pension Junior” Inside, it was…a Korean restaurant (?!), absolutely popping and snapping, Korean faces everywhere. Koreans! Well, I never. A tiny little Slovakian dot on the map, teeming with Koreans; it was totally disorienting.
That little ROK palace, well, it was a godsend. We were completely elated with our find, overjoyed by the opportunity to enjoy some Asian flavors as a nice little departure from the heavy fare we’d been eating for days, and, thankful to be saved from what surely would have been a Slovakian dietary bloodbath.
There was beer, along with the spectacular local addition of palinka
There was banchan
There was one really sweet owner, who took the time to explain to us what on earth he and the rest of Korea were doing there; Kia factory, it turns out. He sent us this lovely fresh fruit dessert.
We hadn’t eaten anything resembling fruit since we left home; This juicy, healthy, package of good was very welcome indeed.