A journey in Central Europe
Budapest to Berlin via the High Tatras
Ted and Steve have briefly visited Hungary and Slovakia previously but felt that we barely touched the surface. On Danube river cruises when Steve was a tour manager with Great Rail Journeys we had not seen much apart from the river and short tours of Budapest and Bratislava. A day trip from Vienna to Bratislava in 1999 is a distant memory. So we put together a journey which would allow us to spend more time in the capital cities and also explore more of Slovakia by train. Then we added on a couple of days in Prague, which we were keen to revisit. Research into train and flight options enabled us to complete the trip with a brief visit to Berlin. It was clear that the journey would take almost two weeks – a long time for Ted to rely solely on Steve for company – so we invited friends along. Dave W, Steve L and Stu joined us for the trip as far as Prague and Dave K and Jochen met us in Bratislava. We set off at the beginning of September 2019 and here is the result.
The Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest
Ted and I visited Budapest in 2015 and 2016, when we were based on river cruise ships moored on the Danube. We were given a tour of the city, but all meals were aboard the boat and our free time was limited. There was much of the city we hadn’t explored, in particular the bars, which frustrated Ted, given his penchant for drink. We aimed to put that right.
The Fishermens Bastion with King Stephen on his horse, and Mátyás church
Budapest is one of the four European capital cities on the Danube. On the west bank of the river is Buda, the oldest part of the city, built on a defensive site – the Vár or Castle Hill. On the other bank is Pest, also an old settlement but largely developed in the nineteenth century and today the commercial heart of the city. They were separate cities until 1873 when they combined and became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Previous key historical events include the arrival of the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes in the region in the ninth century and a long period of rule by the Ottomans. In the twentieth century Hungary became an independent country though most of its territory was lost after the First World War. In the Second World War, following a period of right wing and fascist rule, Hungary was allied with the Germans. The Vár was reduced to rubble at the end of the war – it was the scene of fighting between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army (see note 1 at the end of this section). The city and country were part of the Communist Eastern bloc until 1990. Hungary later joined the European Union and currently is one of the more right wing members (note 2). The Vár has been reconstructed, Pest has developed into a modern European capital and Budapest has become a major tourist destination.
The Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest
It was already dark when we arrived in the evening. Our hotel was in the Viziváros area of Buda, between the Vár and the Danube, located on the river bank directly opposite the impressive floodlit Parliament building. The following morning we sorted out our transport passes and set off to see the main sights – I was frantically trying to remember which places we had visited on our city tour from the cruise boat.
First was the Vár which we reached by a funicular from the riverside. A quick walk in the pouring rain (fortunately the weather improved later in the morning) took us to the main sights – the monument to King Stephen, known as the founder of the Hungarian nation when united the various Magyar tribes (obviously a good king with a name like that), the nineteenth century Mátyás church and the Fishermen’s Bastion, a confection of a building overlooking the city.
Steve and Ted at King Stephens statue, and a station on Metro line 1.
A bus took us down the hill and over the Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) to Pest, where we caught Metro Line 1 to Széchenyi fürdö, the original terminus of the line, built in the middle of a park to serve the Széchenyi thermal baths (note 3). Line 1 opened in May 1896 as part of Hungary’s Millennial celebrations (4) and was the second metro in the world after London, opening only a few months before the third, the Glasgow Subway. Many of the stations are the original buildings, though fortunately the trains are modern. Nearby we explored the Vajdahunyad Castle, Hösök Tere (Heroes Square) and the Millenary Monument (pictured), all built as part of the Millennium Celebrations. The castle is a mixture of Hungarian styles through the ages and the monument depicts leaders of the Hungarian tribes and other Hungarian statesmen, presided over by the Archangel Gabriel. This was followed by a walk through Pest (actually a pub crawl, of which more later), past the main synagogue until we eventually ended up in the Great Market Hall. Though much of it is turned over to tourists buying sausages and paprika there are still plenty of locals, many heading for the Lidl in the basement.
The Great Market Hall and the busy Children’s Railway terminus
On our second day in Budapest Ted and I, together with Dave W, headed out of the city centre while Steve L and Stu explored more of the city. Our aim was to visit areas we had missed on our earlier visits. The first stop was the Children’s Railway in the Buda hills. The railway was constructed in 1948 by Communist Youth Brigades for Young Pioneers interested in a railway career. Today it is part of Hungarian state Railways (MÁV) and remains operated by children (though they don’t drive the trains) – you can spot the ones who are going to be officious, the jobsworths and those out for a good time. As it was a school day and a day off for the kids involved, they were keen to play their parts. The railway runs for 11km through the hills from Hüvösvölgy to Széchenyi-hegy. It was quiet with only a few visitors and a pleasant change from the crowds at the main sites in Buda. At weekends and in summer it is busy – it travels through pleasant wooded hills, it is good walking country and several of the stations have popular buffets, bars and restaurants – our train was carrying supplies to some of them. From Széchenyi-hegy line 60 – a rack railway opened in 1874 – took us back down to the city some 4km away and 300m below.
By tram, metro and bus we made our way to Memento Park. It houses a collection of communist-era statues collected from around Hungary. In addition to the usual Marx, Lenin and Stalin there are Hungarian leaders such as Kun, Landler and Dmitrov. Notable are Stalin’s Boots which recall all that was left of a huge statue of Uncle Joe which was toppled in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Ted was particularly impressed by the giant charging sailor, based on a 1919 revolutionary poster – spot the bear in the photograph. In an old air raid shelter there are statues of the young Lenin and in a former barracks building we watched Life of an Agent, a compilation of old films made by the ÁVO security department to train their staff. We learned that a professional agent should enlist the help of the apartment block concierges, listen into meetings between suspects in ‘bistros’, strongly suspect anyone having American dollars in their possession and back off quickly if you discover that the suspect is a member of the Party. Few tourists had made their way out to Memento Park and missed their chance of sitting in a Trabant car and buying Soviet era kitsch such as the Communism’s Greatest Hits CD.
Steve L and Stu are fans of the hop-on hop-off open top bus tours that provide a recce and introduction to many cities and set off to explore by bus. They followed this with a boat trip to view the city from the Danube. The bus trip is expensive at €22 and confines itself to the city centre (which we had already visited) though it does flesh out some of the history of the city, providing much better commentary than I could. A river trip is a good idea for any visitor to the city – impressive buildings are visible on both banks. Ted and I have memories of an evening cruise on our boat when many of the buildings are floodlit.
Esztergom Basilica above, and the Visegrád ramparts.
Anyone with sufficient time should try to venture out of the city. In 2015 our cruise programme included a coach tour to the towns of Szentendre, Visegrád and Esztergom upstream from Budapest. All three are worth a visit. Esztergom is famous for its massive basilica on a hill above town, built on the site of Hungary’s first cathedral. Visegrád has the remains of a royal place and the ramparts and citadel above the town. Szentendre is a quaint town with several museums, craft shops and, importantly, a café-bar called Teddy Beer which sells craft beer. All three can be reached by boat or hydrofoil trips or coach tours from Budapest. Esztergom and Szentendre are served by frequent suburban trains.
Of course, we had some time for beer and food. We were surprised on the first evening how many places near our hotel closed early – some at nine o’clock and ten or eleven was the exception. To be fair, it was a Monday night and it is primarily a residential and office area – Pest is the place to go for nightlife. During our stay, we found some good places nearby – a gastrobar and an older bar in a back street and on Batthyány ter, the main square of the district, a cafe bar provided beer, goulash and goulash soup. Our main pub crawl through Pest included a restaurant serving cheap Hungarian standards, a bar with a garden, a ruin bar, a bar in the market and a local bar near Nyugati Station. While planning the trip I had spotted a place called Old Man’s Music Pub, which sounded ideal, but it has closed since that review. There’s more detail about the places we found in the practicalities section below.
The statue of Anonymous, the unknown chronicler of medieval Hungary, by Vajdahunyad Castle
Currency: Hungary uses the forint. If you are used to sterling and/or euros, the large figures can make prices look expensive. It isn’t true – remember Italia lira and Spanish pesetas – there are about 370 forints (HUF) to the pound and 330 to the euro (October 2019).
Where addresses are given ut. = utca = street and tér = square.
Accommodation: Our hotel was the Novotel Danube, Bem Rakpart 33-34, booked via the Accor Hotels website www.accorhotels.com . Most rooms had a great view across the river and it is in a quiet location. Room-only guests should note that there is a Spar supermarket nearby at Batthyány Ter to stock up on odds and ends. At the front of the shop is an inexpensive café open from early to late (and also an ATM to stock up on forints).
Getting Around: From the airport an official taxi to our hotel cost HUF8800. The yellow cabs are booked at an office by the exit from arrivals – they give you the cab number and the taxi arrives a few minutes later. The drivers accept credit cards. There is a direct bus (no. 100E) from the airport to Deák Ferenc tér in the city centre (which is served by metro lines 1, 2 and 3). It runs every 10-20 minutes and costs HUF900 per person.
Getting around the city by public transport is simple, with frequent core metro and tram routes, complemented by trolleybus (in Pest) and bus services. Ticket machines at metro stations and main tram and bus stops accept contactless payments. Most useful are 24 hour tickets which cost HUF1650 and are valid on all standard services (i.e. not the Buda Castle funicular, Danube boats and the Children’s Railway). Single, 72 hour and group 24 hour tickets are also available. Travel for over 65s is free on all BKK services – bring your passport or a photocopy as proof of age. There are regular ticket checks at metro stations and occasional checks on trams and buses. The castle hill in Buda is served by the frequent no. 16 bus from Deák Ferenc tér and by the Buda Castle funicular from Clark Ádám tér (fare HUF1200 one way, HUF1800 return).
Castle Hill Funicular and Childrens Railway tickets and entrance to Memento Park
The Children’s Railway (Gyermekvasút www.gyermekvasut.hu ) operates daily in high summer but not on Mondays during the remainder of the year. Trains run at least hourly from 1000 to 1600. A single fare is HUF800 for the whole journey from Hüvösvölgy to Széchenyi-hegy – only cash is accepted as the children aren’t permitted to take card payments (though they will already be more familiar with cashless payments than their parents). To reach the railway take metro line 2 (red line) to Széll Kálmán tér then tram 56A or 61 (also 56 and 59B on Mon-Fri) to Hüvösvölgy terminus then walk uphill to the station (not very well signposted). At the other end walk downhill to the rack railway station (line 60), every 20 minutes to Városmajor, from where it is only a couple of stops by any city-bound tram back to Széll Kálmán tér.
Memento Park is in the southern suburbs of Buda at Szoborpark, Balantoni ut., XXII Budapest. Catch metro line 4 (Green line) or tram 1, 19 or 49 to Kelenföld terminus, which is a major interchange with bus routes. Find the stop for buses 101B, 101E and 150 – destination Budatétény vasútállomás (Carmona). The journey to the Memento Park stop takes about 10 minutes – the previous stop is called Budatétény benzinkút, after which the bus takes a left turn off the main road. Walk back from the stop, cross the main road and you should see Stalin’s Boots. Entrance is HUF1500 and the park is open every day from 1000 to dusk. There are more details at www.mementopark.hu including times of a daily bus each morning to and from the city centre.
More from Memento Park – including another pair of Stalin’s Boots
Out of town: Szentendre is reached by suburban train from Batthyány tér station (40 minutes journey) and Esztergom by train every 30 mins from Nyugati station (65 minute journey). Visegrád can be reached by bus. All three can be reached by Danube boat – details at www.mahartpassnave.hu . Coach tours are available and are suitable for the less able as the Esztergom Basilica and Visegrád citadel are both a steep climb from town.
Esztergom, from the Slovakian bank of the Danube
Beer and bars. The standard measure of beer is 50cl and, as usual, costs vary according to strength and the percentage of tourists. There are plenty of places selling craft beers and many smaller Hungarian breweries. www.ratebeer.com has the details, though they tend to give their highest ratings to places with the greatest variety of beers, rather than those that sell one or two excellent beers. Most places in tourist areas take cards and contactless payment, but not all.
Some of those we visited were:
– near the hotel we drank and ate in Angelika Étterem és Kávéház, Batthyány tér 7 and drank in Corvin Gastropub, Corvin ter, a modern pub with a range of craft beers and Lánchíd Söröző, Fő ut. 4, (pictured) a fine old boozer and restaurant
– our pubs in Pest included Café Bobek, Kazinczy ut. 53, with a beer garden to the rear, Szimpla Kert, Kazinczy ut. 14, a ruin bar with several bars in an old factory, and Legfelsöbb Beeróság, Dohany ut. 20, very quiet when we were in, but with interesting beers
– in Szentendre Teddy Beer is at Péter Pál ut. 2.
(1) The Rough Guide reckons that the end of the Second World War was the 86th time that the Vár had been ravaged and rebuilt in the past 700 years.
(2) The election of the Fidesz Party and Viktor Orbán in 2010 has taken Hungary far to the right. As is often the case, this is not reflected in the politics of the capital city. I recollect our tour guide in 2015 describing Orbán as ‘psychotic’ and unpopular in the city. Since our visit Budapest has elected a new mayor Georgely Karácsany with the support of several parties opposed to Fidesz. ( www.theguardian.com/world/2019/Oct/13/opposition-parties-candidate-wins-budapest-mayoral-race )
(3) The name Széchenyi crops up regularly in Budapest. It refers to Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), Hungarian politician, political theorist and writer who was, according to Wikipedia, widely considered to be one of Hungary’s greatest statesmen.
(4) The 1896 Millennial Celebrations marked 1000 years since the Magyars arrived in the region. In fact, they arrived in 895 but, as the metro and the monuments were not completed in time the official date was adjusted to 896.
Budapest to Bratislava
We caught the train from Budapest to Bratislava – a two-and-a-half hour, 214km journey. We bumped into a Great Rail Journeys tour group on their way to Prague and I became a second tour manager to those of the group sitting in our carriage. The Czech Railways train passed through the suburbs of Budapest then followed the north bank of the Danube for a while. We could see across to Visegrád (there is a station at Nagymaros with a ferry across the river) and, as we entered Slovakia, we could see the basilica at Esztergom. Shortly after the border we crossed the River Hron, then later the River Váh – both rivers crop up later. Then we crossed a plain and entered Bratislava from the northeast.
Trains run between Budapest Nyugati (Western) and Bratislava hlavná stanica (Central Station) every two hours. Nyugati station (5) is served by the very frequent tram routes 4 and 6 and metro line 3 (Blue line) to Nyugati pályudvar The MÁV Hungarian State Railways website www.mavcsoport.hu is not the easiest to use, but is worth getting to grips with for access to cheap tickets – there is guidance by the Man in Seat 61 at www.seat61.com/websites/mav-start.htm . Our ‘Bratislava Special’ tickets in second class cost €9 plus €3 for the seat reservation – these prices are sometimes available on the day of travel. To pay online you have to sign up to the ‘Simple Pay’ online payment system. You are given a ten digit code which you key into a yellow ticket machine at Nyugati station – select the English language option, enter the Code, press ‘betival’ (enter) and out pops the ticket(s).
(5) Budapest Nyugati station is due to be modernised over the next two years and it is expected that the old part of the station will be closed for several months while the roof is replaced (Todays Railways Europe no. 287, November 2019). Watch out for platform or even station alterations.
Bratislava Hrad (castle)
Bratislava, another capital city on the Danube, this time of Slovakia, is a much smaller city than Budapest or Prague. The city has a population of 430,000 compared with 1.74M and 1.3M respectively. It is easier to get around, it is less over-touristed and less difficult to mingle with locals. The exception is the old town, which has a constant stream of day tourists from the cruise boats moored in the river. We all agreed that Bratislava had a good feel about the place, though it is difficult to be more specific about the reasons for this.
Like much of central Europe Bratislava has a chequered history. When Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 Bratislava (then Pressburg in German and English) was a town of 60,000 people, over 80% of whom were German or Hungarian. Earlier, it had been the coronation site and legislative centre of Hungary while the Ottomans ruled Budapest. Until World War II there was a large Jewish community. By the end of the war it was a Slovak city and became capital of Slovakia once Czechoslovakia became a federal sate in 1993 and then of independent Slovakia from 1993. Today it is prosperous (and noticeably richer than the remainder of Slovakia). Wikipedia quotes articles which state that in 2017 it was ranked the third richest area of the EU by GDP after Hamburg and Luxembourg City, though that may be overstating the case.
Dave W, Ted and I had a stroll round the medieval Staré Mesto (old town), from the fourteenth century Michaels Gate (Michalská brána) to the River Danube, via the main square (Hlavné námestie – pictured) by the old town hall, where we were soaked in a fountain. We walked along a tourist street with Scottish, Irish and Spanish bars plus an Austrian cake shop next to one another. Towards the river many of the buildings are from the nineteenth century, such as the opera house and national gallery. On the way we tripped over the 1997 statue ‘Man at Work’ of a sewer worker resting at a manhole and added a ‘Bear at Work’ to the statue. From the riverbank there are views of the Hrad (castle) on the hill above the town and of the impressive new bridge (nový most) built in 1972. A little less impressive when you discover that the approaches to the bridge demolished the old Jewish quarter as they sliced through the city centre. Outwith the old town are the shopping areas and an area of late-night bars and clubs for the local kids, which also contained, for whatever reason, a plethora of Thai massage parlours.
Bear at work
Stu and Steve L took the bus tour, this time in replica old buses, which gave them the opportunity to visit the Hrad and the Soviet war memorial, commemorating those who died in the WW2 battle for Bratislava. Both are a stiff climb above the city centre and away from tram routes. Dave W, Ted and I fitted in a trip by tram to Rača on the edge of the city. It is a former wine growing village which today is mainly a modern suburb of Bratislava. There is still an older part of the village and the trip provided the opportunity to see parts of Bratislava away from the tourist areas.
I had difficulty recognising much from my visit to the city with Colin in 1999, on a day trip from Vienna. I had a horrendous hangover – the previous day we been drinking wine in the afternoon in a heuriger (wine tavern) in the Vienna Woods then returned to town, where we explored the bars until the early hours. On the train we were scrutinised by border guards who suspected us of smuggling – it was before Slovakia joined the European Union – I must have looked suspicious, sweating and trying not to throw up. On arrival we found an ATM in the station, assumed that 1000 Crowns (Slovenskych koruna), then about £15, would be enough for the day and out popped a 1000 crown note. The station bookshop couldn’t change it and asked us to pay for a town map with Austrian schillings. We couldn’t take the tram into town – the fare was 1 crown and the machines only took coins. We walked into the city centre, found a newly opened five-star hotel, went into the bar and had the most expensive beer – Guinness I believe – to break the note. I remember a beer hall later in the afternoon where I felt ill and went downstairs to the toilet where an old crone sat collecting 1 crown for entrance and provided a single sheet of toilet paper, which was definitely not going to be enough. My memory gets a bit vague after that, but I think it involved a back lane. I remember that the day became better once I revived. We wandered round the old town – there weren’t many tourists around in 1999, though it was February (see photo). I’ve checked and, despite selling some of the currency on eBay many years later, I still have 455 Slovakian crowns in a drawer at home – a few of them are pictured.
This visit was considerably more civilised, though we did manage to have a few beers. It turned out to be easy in Bratislava to find places with decent craft beers – they seem to be trendy in Bratislava. Our friends Dave K and Jochen had arrived in Bratislava before us and became our guides to the bars. When we arrived we met up with them in a brewpub they had found in the main square (námestie SNP) which became our meeting place over the next couple of days. Everywhere in Slovakia seems to have an SNP square – nothing to do with Slovakia’s close links to the Scottish National Party – it stands for Slovak National Uprising (6).
a bear full of beer cheese
Later, they led us across the river to a place they had found on the south bank (actually they left a bear and two of us behind when they jumped on a tram while we were fiddling with the ticket machines … but we all got there). Pod Mostom is largely in the open air and sells Starobrno beer from the tank at ridiculously cheap prices. We missed out on a riverside disco bar they had found the previous evening. Another brewpub in town was Bratislavsky Mestransky Pivovar, which also provided fine food – the beer cheese, which was listed as a snack, came with five slices of fried toast and filled me for the evening. The goulash can also be vouched for. Dave W and I found a craft beer bar in the old town selling some of the strangest outrageously strong beers with bizarre flavours. A bar near our hotel had a good selection and out at Rača we found Jennyv – a pub and restaurant with a garden and more filling food. It’s not all beer – we called in for a coffee at the F X Messerschmidt Café on námestie SNP. When I went inside to the loo I discovered a small museum devoted to the overthrow of communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 – the major rallies took place on the square outside.
after a few in Pod Mostom
Accommodation. We were split between two hotels both of which were fine – the Mercure Bratislava, convenient for the railway station, and the Ibis Bratislava Centrum, Zamocka 38, in the city centre, booked through www.accorhotels.com . Near the Ibis those of us on a room-only basis found a pleasant coffee shop Kava.Bar which provided breakfast.
Getting around. The centre of Bratislava is compact and walkable. However the main station is some way out of the centre – the key link is tram (known here as electricky) No. 1 which runs every few minutes between the station (hlavná stanica), the city centre (námestie SNP is the main stop) and across the river to Petržalka (a huge area of communist era tower blocks). There is no tram up to the castle (they tunnel beneath the castle rock) but it can be reached by frequent trolleybus 203 and 207 from Hodžovo námestie in the city centre. The Slavin monument can be reached by hourly bus 147 from Hodžovo námestie. Fares are cheap – €0.70 for 15 mins travel, €0.90 for 30 mins and €3.50 for 24 hours – coins are required for the ticket machines at stops. Public transport information is at www.imhd.sk.
Beer and Pubs:
– Our meeting place on námestie SNP was Výčap u Ernőho (also known as Pivovar Shenk), Klobučnícka 485/6. Beer is brewed on site and there is plenty of space to sit outside in the square (€2 deposit for a glass) and watch the world go by.
– Pod Mostom is at Viedenská cesta 10, Petržalka, take tram no 1 and get off at the first stop across the river
– Bratislavsky Mestransky Pivovar is at Drevena 8
– Be Unorthodox craft beer bar (and the beers are unorthodox) is in the old town at Panská 245/13, up a lane on the side of the street closest to the river. Another craft beer bar in the same lane is Zil Verne.
– Towards the Ibis hotel is Hangout, Župné námestie 588/9
– In Rača, Jennyv is at devianska 20, close to the tram no 3 stop at Cintorin Rača
(6) SNP stands for slovenského národného povstania. The Slovak National Uprising in 1944 was led by the resistance to the Slovak Nazi puppet government. At the time it failed because of the inability or reluctance of the Red Army to come to its support. The uprising was centred in the eastern mountains of Slovakia. Ultimately it was the Soviet (largely Ukranian) army which freed Slovakia, combating German trips who had invaded to support the puppet government.
Through Slovakia to the Tatras
Ted and I wanted to explore more of Slovakia away from the capital. A little research suggested the Tatras Mountains were the area to head for, both for the journey and for the scenery when we got there. So, we set off by train from Bratislava to Poprad, the city which is the gateway to the High Tatras.
The 334km journey to Poprad-Tatry takes about four and a half hours on the main line which connects Bratislava with Košice, the second city of Slovakia. The first stretch is through the foothills of the Low Carpathian Mountains. This is a wine growing area much of which has become suburban. Soon we reached the River Váh and followed it upstream for almost all of the journey. We called at Trenčin, with a castle on a rock above the city, the industrial town of Púchovy then reached Žilina, 200km from Bratislava, the fourth city of Slovakia and a major railway junction. The line onwards is being rebuilt with much of the scenic section of the line being replaced by tunnels. The scale of the work means that this stretch is currently a bottleneck. At Žilina we watched as trains came and went until it was our turn. We continued through the upper Váh valley. In parts the river is in a gorge, elsewhere there are lakes and reservoirs where the river has been dammed. We reached Vrútky, another junction, where major railway works date from the building of the line in the 1870s. Another scenic stretch followed as we approached the Tatras – the Low Tatras to the south and the High Tatras to the north. There were good views of the mountains and their resorts, which are located on a ridge above the Poprad valley. The delay at Žilina meant that we trundled into Poprad-Tatry station 25 minutes late.
The resorts are served by the metre-gauge Tatras Electric Railway (Tatranská electrická železnica), which leaves from a platform above and across the main railway lines. The trains are railcars, more like trams and call at halts every few fields. However, after half an hour we reached our destination Starý Smokovec and set off in search of our accommodation.
Practicalities – travelling by train in Slovakia
Slovakian railways, including the Tatras Electric Railway, are operated by the state railway company ZSSK (with the exception of a few through trains from Prague privately operated by Leo Express). The trains are generally not the most modern, but long-distance trains are comfortable enough and have wifi and refreshment trolleys. Train travel in second class is free for those aged 62 and over (and those under 26) with a customer card as proof of eligibility. Those of us who qualified obtained the card at Bratislava Central Station by presenting our passports and a passport photo. It is not time-limited and we can use the cards (pictured) on future visits to Slovakia. Depending on your plans, the card may be of limited use. It cannot be obtained outside the country and busy main line trains mean that you may prefer to buy tickets and reservations in advance and pay the standard fare, particularly if you wish to sit together as a group.
The good news is that standard fares are ridiculously cheap – so cheap that traveling first class is an option even for those on a tight budget. For example, our first class tickets from Bratislava to Poprad cost €19.72 including reservations for 334km. Tickets can be printed at home. We didn’t try downloading them to phones though this is also possible. The Slovak railways website www.slovakrail.sk is quite easy to use.
Fares on the Tatras electric network are also inexpensive – the maximum single fare (for more than 20km) is €2 and a day ticket for the network is €4. The souvenir shop at Starý Smokovec station sells historic tickets converted to fridge magnets (they cost much more than Kcs 2.50 ).
Starý Smokovec and the High Tatras
There are three main resorts in the area – in the middle, directly north of and above Poprad is Starý Smokovec, where we were based, to the east Tatranská Lomnica and to the west Štrbské Pleso. The resorts are all in the Tatras National Park and linked by the electric railway.
Starý Smokovec – early morning view of the station and the Poprad valley
Starý Smokovec was an older settlement which developed into a spa resort over one hundred years ago. Today the main visitors are walkers and climbers in the summer and skiers in the winter. There are several older half-timbered buildings including the grand spa hotel and a couple of churches. It began to develop after the railway in the valley below opened in the 1870s. Further development occurred following the arrival of the electric railway, which was constructed and opened in stages between 1908 and 1912. It is a strangely artificial place – though the permanent population of the municipality (Vysoké Tatry) is about 4000, the centre of the resort is little more than a collection of hotels and apartment blocks, together with snack cabins to feed and water those who arrive on the trains for day trips from a wide area of Slovakia.
When we planned the trip there was virtually no hotel accommodation available on a September weekend but we managed to book an apartment at Central Apartmany (which, unsurprisingly, translates as Central Apartments). It was well furnished and comfortable with, had we wished to use them, good cooking facilities. It also provided an opportunity mid-trip to wash and dry clothes. The staff were friendly and there is a restaurant, bar and café on the ground floor. To one side was a view of the Grand Hotel (pictured) and (if the weather had cleared) the mountains, on the other the station and the Poprad valley below.
For a resort, opening hours were unusual to us. Many cafes and bars closed at 1900-2000 after the day trippers left. A few places, including the Central, were Late Nite Spots, staying open until 2200. On Sunday we were having a drink in a bar at 1330 when it closed for the day – presumably the lunchtime rush (us and four others) was over. After the weekend (we arrived on Saturday and left on Tuesday) the town more or less closed down. When we arrived at the Co-op on Monday morning to stock up on some odds and ends it was closed for the day for stocktaking. While late night boozing wasn’t an option (not really our thing anyway), early morning drinking was easily available (not really our thing either). We turned up at the station buffet for a breakfast roll and coffee and were offered a rum with the coffee. When we looked around (it was busy) we were the only patrons without an alcoholic drink.
We must be leaving – the weather is clearing
The weather closed in just after we arrived and finally lifted just as we were leaving. The peaks were shrouded in mist, the rain was heavy and the thunderstorms on the Sunday night were quite something. Even the wasps were taking refuge indoors – I managed to get stung by one which sneaked into my bed for shelter. Despite this we managed to enjoy ourselves. The wine and the beer were fine (there was the option of dark beer in most places), the food was filling and inexpensive and we had time to pootle around the area.
A fat lad and some bears at Hrebienok
We visited Hrebienok, a small resort above Starý Smokovec, reached by funicular. There was a bear theme about the place (there were paw marks on the roof of the funicular). For whatever reason the mascot of the place is Kubo the Bear and Ted was introduced. It was busy with jolly walkers. Goodness knows what they could see – the mist began a few metres above. There appears to be some classic mountain walking in the area.
The electric railway took us to Tatranská Lomnica, where we found the SALUS pub, with an excellent selection of beers which we sampled before calling in at the Grill Pub by the station. In the opposite direction, the railway line to Štrbské Pleso passed a series of places which had the appearance of being holiday/rest/convalescent homes for trade unionists and workers in communist days. Štrbské Pleso, founded in 1873 when the local landowner realised the potential for tourism is, at 1351m, the highest of the resort villages. Through the mist across the lake we could just see a ski jump which was built for the 1970 World Ski Championships. Regular skiing events mean that it is the most commercialised of the resorts. We managed a walk round the lake before we went for a beer.
We paid a brief visit to Poprad, but pouring rain meant we remained near the station and didn’t reach the town centre. However, the nearest bar was friendly, sold pizza and featured fish swimming around in an old well in the middle of the room. We also had plans to travel higher into the mountains, but the weather prevented that. This gives Ted and I the option of returning in the future to fill in the gaps (7).
Starý Smokovec practicalities:
Accommodation. Central Apartmany is at Starý Smokovec 24, 062 01 Vysoké Tatry. We booked vía boking.com, though it has its own website at www.centralapartmany.sk .
(7) Due to the weather we missed taking the cable car from Tatranská Lomnica to the summit of Lomnický štít (2632m) and the chairlift from Štrbské Pleso to Predné Soliko (2093m). We also didn’t have the time to ride on the rack railway, built in 1896 from Štrbské Pleso down to Strba in the valley, the first rail access to the area.
Onward to Banská Bystrica
We left Starý Smokovec on Tuesday morning as the weather cleared and we could see the peaks for the first time since we arrived. First stop was Poprad, where we had time for a beer – this time we discovered a bar by the station which was open until 0300. Was this where everyone goes for a late night or was it because of the small casino attached? Next was a Košice-bound train as far as Margecany, a railway junction in the middle of nowhere. The further we are from Bratislava the less it looked and felt like Slovakia’s main line – it is many years since it was last modernised. The agricultural villages en route each had a platform for the occasional train. We saw some of the clapped-out local service railcars around which reminded us of UK Pacers. In general, the villages appeared to be prosperous. Every so often we passed a run-down rural slum – sometimes old cottages, sometimes a couple of blocks of flats – on the edge of villages. My guess is that is where the Romani population live – from what I’ve read many are desperately poor and suffer from discrimination (8).
This could almost be the UK – local trains at Margecany station
At Margecany there was a grim buffet of sorts on the platform, unreconstructed for the last thirty years. The toilet was along he platform and only accessible with a key from the bar. Despite this, it gets the prize as the filthiest, smelliest toilet of the trip. Steve L wandered out for a quick look round for somewhere better to pass the time. The square outside the station had nothing more than a hairdresser’s. However, just out of sight around the corner he found a bar-cum-cake shop with a pleasant beer garden and the cheapest drinks of the whole journey, so our spirits lifted (9).
We caught the afternoon train to Banská Bystrica, a wheezing diesel locomotive with three coaches. This is one of the more remote areas of Slovakia and only two trains daily make the through journey. The first section along a valley is well populated as far as Nálepkovo. From there on the line winds through the hills, often far from any road. We passed a picturesque lake near the village of Dedinky then climbed over a low pass. On the far side there was a spiral tunnel to take the railway line down into the valley. The narrow stream turned out to be the headwaters of the River Hron. We followed the river to Banská Bystrica, where it turns southwards and heads for the Danube. The main feature was endless forests which appeared to be central to the local economy – each village had its woodyard. Beyond the town of Brezno we were in civilisation once more and we rolled into Banská Bystrica at 1814 after a three and a half hour, 179km journey for the princely sum of €9.42 each,
(8) The Romani community form about 2% of the population of Slovakia and are mainly concentrated in this eastern part of the country. Many live on the margins of society and Wikipedia quotes reports of segregation in access to education and healthcare.
(9) I don’t suppose any human or bear reading this will ever be in Margecany but, just in case, the bar / shop is Hosinec pod orechom at Partizánska 72/48.
Ted gets to know a Slovakian boy, who looks a bit intimidated by the bear.
Banská Bystrica is an odd place at first sight, at least if you arrive by train. It is a historic city which grew rich in the middle ages through local copper mining and is known as the cradle of Slovakia. However, when you leave the station you are in a wasteland of wide boulevards and a shopping centre. This was meant to be the new city, constructed in communist times as a showpiece of (bad) town planning. No taxis were visible outside the station (it turns out the rank is by the shopping centre) and our skyscraper hotel was visible not too far away. So I set off to walk leading our tired party of people and bear. This was a mistake – it was further than it looked via awkward crossings and along muddy, poorly maintained paths.
The unreality increased as we neared the hotel. It is on a broad square, Freedom Square, formerly used as a parade ground and dominated by a large statue of Lenin, now removed. Round the square are showpiece system-built flats for faithful Party members. The Hotel Lux, sixteen stories of grey reinforced concrete built in 1969 is another showpiece of the city’s inexorable progress under communism. It has been modernised and is comfortable and friendly inside, though the eight staff sternly watching us eat our buffet breakfast was a reminder of times past.
By now it was dark but we wanted to explore, eat and drink. We marched across the parade ground, along the running track for Young Pioneers to practice their gymnastic skills, past the SNP (Slovakian National Uprising – remember) memorial – Banská Bystrica was at the heart of the area where the uprising began – and the brutalist SNP museum with its collection of tanks and aircraft and into the old town.
The old town is a different world and worth more of our time than we were able to give it that evening. There was a live band playing in the main square (námestie SNP, inevitably), by the obelisk commemorating the Russian and Romanian soldiers who liberated the city. The square is surrounded by busy bars and restaurants, though even here, in a university town most of them were closing at 2200 as we returned to the hotel). By now we were about 2km from the station and in a different world, though much of the population lives in post-war flats further out. We found a cellar bar which sold good beer and food – there was even some salad involved. On our way back to the overheated rooms in the Lux Hotel a fox was exploring the SNP memorial. Interesting fact – I’ve just discovered while writing this that Banská Bystrica is twinned with our home town in the UK, Durham. The things you learn.
Banská Bystrica practicalities
Banská Bystrica from the Lux Hotel
Accommodation. The Hotel Lux, námestie Slobody 2, was booked through booking.com. The rooms are comfortable though overheated, but excellent value at €78 for a double or twin room, including the substantial buffet breakfast under the glare of the staff.
Beer. The pub we used was Červený Rak (also known as Pivovar Krebs) at námestie SNP 13, which sells the locally brewed Krebs beer. There is a terrace on the square and a large indoor restaurant but we chose the cellar pub – the entrance is in a side lane off the square.
Into the Czech Republic
We left Banská Bystrica the following morning to complete our circuit of Slovakia and travel into the Czech Republic and Prague. Rather than risk walking once more Steve L wisely insisted we booked a taxi to the station which was well worth the €2.50 it cost. Our train to Ostrava was pulled by another wheezing diesel which took us through more forested hills and villages dominated by lumberyards. We passed through towns such as Turčianske Teplice and the non-Slovak sounding Martin. Turčianske Teplice is nothing to do with Turks but is the centre of the Turiec region, while Martin is named after Saint Martin. Useless fact: Martin has a significant Norwegian and Icelandic population, students at the faculty of medicine there. We completed our circuit by reaching Vrútky and retraced our steps along the scenic line to Žilina, once again delayed by engineering work.
At Žilina our diesel was replaced by an electric locomotive, we left the main line to Bratislava and trundled up a valley to the Czech border. As Czechoslovakia only split into two in 1993 and both are in the European Union and the Schengen Area the border is unnoticeable – there is none of the paraphernalia of large customs sheds, border stations and goods yards that remain visible, rotting away, at many other European borders. We were also close to the Polish border – at one point it runs along the river as we travelled along its bank. This corner of the Czech Republic was heavily industrialised due to the discovery of coal and iron ore deposits. While much of the most polluting industry has disappeared in the past thirty years there remains plenty evidence of industrialisation (10).
We had 7 minutes to change train at Ostrava-Smichov – we arrived 25 minutes late and had missed our connection. However, this meant we had time to change our reservations (which was remarkably easy), obtain some Czech currency from an ATM and use it to purchase some beer in the station buffet before catching the next train to Prague. We travelled through North Moravia, into Bohemia via towns such as Olomuoc and Pardubice and eventually reached Prague. The journey was uneventful – we were tired after two consecutive days travelling and we dozed a fair bit of the way. While we recollect pleasant countryside we were well clear of mountains and the scenery is less dramatic.
The international journey from Banská Bystrica to Prague was booked on the Czech Railways (České Dráhy or CD) website www.cd.cz which is user-friendly. CD often sells very cheap advance fares, not only within the Czech Republic but to and from neighbouring countries. The first class fare of €27 (for 563km) included the Ostrava – Prague reservation (compulsory on many trains between the two cities). We had to reserve the Banská – Ostrava seats separately via the Slovak Railways site for the vast sum of €2 each.
(10) There were coalmines throughout the city of Ostrava and a filthy coking plant in the city centre which closed in the 1990s. At one point there were plans to demolish the city centre and turn it all over to coal mining. Mining ceased in 1994 but pollution and subsidence – the castle has sunk by 16 metres since mining began – remain problems.
Staroměstské Náměstí (Old Town Square), Prague
Colin, Ted and I had been to Prague a couple of times, in 2003 and 2004, the second time bringing my mother along for the trip, but neither Dave W, Steve L or Stu had been before. We enjoyed the visits and for us it was a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the city, for the others it would be a chance to get to know it.
We spent the evening after arriving from Ostrava in the area by the hotel. We were staying in the new town (nové mesto), not far from Wenceslas Square, (pictured). The square is the modern commercial and business centre of the city and was the focus for street protests over the years, including the 1968 Prague Spring and the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It was an area of town we hadn’t explored previously, so we set out to see what it had to offer. We had identified a brewpub close to the hotel online and Dave and I headed there for decent beer and goulash with enough dumplings to sink a battleship. On our previous visits Prague was notable for good, inexpensive beer and we were pleased to find that, while prices were higher than elsewhere on the trip so far, they remained reasonable. We had spotted a cellar bar that looked interesting, and Steve and Stu had also noticed it on their way to join us. So in we went and U Vočka turned out to be excellent. A small bar, with a mixture of students and others, lots of clocks on the wall which reminded us of one of our locals in Benalmádena Spain (the Anytime Bar), a friendly landlady and staff, interesting conversation with the punters and, of course good food, wine and beer. We ended up there each night of our stay.
Prague was spared the destruction of World War II and the communist years which followed saw little redevelopment of the older areas of the city (though plenty of the usual blocks of flats on the outskirts). The unspoilt and historic city has become a magnet for tourists. Prague reminded us of Edinburgh in many ways….not least that it is mobbed with tourists such as ourselves…many more than on our visits in 2003/4. Dave W joined Ted and I on a recce/revisit of old haunts while Steve and Stu opted for the open-top bus tour and a boat trip. We began by taking the No. 22 tram from the city centre, over the River Vltava and round the back of the castle hill (Hradčany). The picture is a view of the cathedral from there. We then gradually made our way on foot downhill to Malá Strana, back across the river and into the staré mesto (old town).
At the top of the hill ambassadors were leaving the five-star Savoy Hotel in their limos after a meeting. We gave the hotel a miss and instead headed round the corner for an early lunch and first beer of the day in U Černého vola (the Black Ox). It’s a old pub, with very traditional food. Despite the area being full of tourists, a few old locals still go in for their daily beers – a couple of tables at the front are reserved for them. We would recommend it except that we were overcharged for the food and, I regret to say, I think it was not accidental.
This was followed by a walk through Hradčany past the monasteries, palaces (pictured above), museums and the castle itself, with St. Vitus’s Cathedral hidden in the middle, then down the steps into a Malá Strana back street and U Hrocha (the Hippo). When we discovered it back in 2003 it became our base – a local’s pub selling Pilsner Urquell, beer cheese and other snacks. It is unchanged, busy on a Thursday lunchtime. There must still be some real people living nearby – not every house has become an Airbnb.
Malá Strana (Little Quarter or Lesser Town) is an interesting area in its own right, full of alleys, old backstreets and Baroque churches. One could spend a couple of days exploring it and the castle area. However, this was a recce of Prague for Dave W so we fought our way through the crowds across the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) and into the Old Town Square (Staroměstské Náměstí) for a quick look around. A beautiful and fascinating area but uncomfortably busy so we decided it was time for another beer.
Tourists on Charles Bridge 2019 (left) and 2003 (right).
We chose U Zlatého tygra (the Golden Tiger) which we had missed on our previous visits to Prague but was recommended by several friends. This included Dave K and Jochen who had called in a few days earlier on their way back from Bratislava to Prague Airport and Newcastle. The pub opens at 1500 and by 1505 it was busy, the glasses of Pilsner Urquell were on every table and the beer cheese was being dished out to those who were hungry. Though it has been visited by many famous people and is thus firmly on the tourist trail it manages to retain the atmosphere of a good local boozer. The glasses of beer keep arriving just before you ask for another, until you cover your existing glass with a beermat to indicate you don’t wish any more. It is inevitable that you get talking to your neighbours – the others at our table were a bloke visiting from Brno who hadn’t been in for years and wanted to see whether it had changed, a man from Bratislava in Prague on business who had brought his son along for the trip and an elderly drunk but affable Norwegian. After a thoroughly enjoyable hour or so we headed back to the hotel for a siesta before meeting up with Steve and Stu for our evening visit to U Vočka. While we were pub-crawling they had been on the bus tour round the city followed by a boat trip on the River Vlata.
Halfway across the Charles Bridge there is a flight of steps down to an island, Kampa, separated from Malá Strana by a mill lade. Beside the river is a hotel where we stayed on our previous visits (11). It’s a great location as the island has very little traffic, the air by the river is fresh and the rooms were comfortable. When we weren’t in the hotel or U hrocha we explored the city by tram, ending up at a junction in the middle of a large housing estate where trams turned in all directions. By the tram lines were a pair of tram spotters with their notebooks and we guessed immediately and correctly that they were Brits. We took mum to see the opera in the historic Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo – pictured above) which we enjoyed thoroughly. Though it was the Greatest Hits version of Don Giovanni and aimed firmly at the tourist market, the standard of the singing was excellent. We visited the pleasant suburb of Vinohrady, where the television tower had huge plastic babies climbing it (pictured in 2003 – they’ve now gone). We thought about moving to Prague but, with zero spare cash to our names, that was another dream that never happened. However, I’m glad Ted and I returned and plans are forming in my head to visit again as a base for exploring more of the Czech Republic.
Currency. The currency is the Czech Koruna. £1 is just less than 30CZK and €1 is about 25CZK.
Accommodation. Prague isn’t cheap and it is busy so cheap deals may be difficult to come by. The hotel we used was the Novotel Praha Wenceslas Square, Kateřinská 38, booked through www.accorhotels.com. It is close to I P Pavlova metro station, two stops from Prague Central Station (Praha Hlavní nádraží), or a walk along Wilsonova, a busy ring road). The hotel is convenient for tram services to most parts of the city from nearby Ječná street.
Getting around. The tram network is comprehensive and the metro can be useful. A single ticket costs CZK24 for 30 minutes (including transfers), CZK32 for 90 minutes and a 24 hour ticket is CZK110. Ticket machines which accept contactless payments are available at metro stations and on all trams. Information, maps and timetables are available at www.dpp.cz . The tram stop on routes 22 and 23 at the top of Hradčany is called Pohořelec. If you wish to visit the castle itself alight a couple of stops earlier at Pražský hrad.
Beer and pubs. The beer may not be as cheap as Slovakia but remains good value and there’s plenty of decent beer around including a growing number of craft beers. The reputation of the city attracts stag and hen parties from all over as well as groups from more expensive countries out to sample as much booze as possible. As usual www.ratebeer.com is the place to find pubs specialising in craft beer. To avoid the crowds (in bars and generally) choose your time of the day, week and year with care.
The pubs we visited are:
Pivovarský Dům, Lipová 13 at the corner of Ječná, brewpub and restaurant
U Vočka, Ječná 519/34, our local on this visit.
U Černého vola (the Black Ox), Loretánske námĕsti 1, selling Kozel and Pilsner Urquell beers and healthy food (pictured)
U hrocha (the Hippo), Thunovská 10, authentic boozer. Pilsner Urquell
U Zlatého tygra (the Golden Tiger), Husova 228/17, a piece of living history.
(11) The hotel is now called the Archibald at the Charles Bridge, and it is still getting good reviews
Prague to Berlin
The historic old hall in Prague station
Ted and I said goodbye to the remainder of the group in Prague. They were flying home while we caught a train to Berlin, with yet another cheap advance ticket from Czech Railways – €27 in second class, for a four hour 388km journey. The train journey was my choice as it appeared from the map that the railway line passed through some decent scenery as far as the German border and Dresden which turned out to be the case. The Vltava is a tributary of the Elbe (Labe in Czech) which it joins to the north of Prague and the railway follows the river valley between hills on either side. We called at substantial towns such as Ústí nad Labem and Dĕčín before crossing the border near Bad Schandau, which we visited a couple of years go (see JOURNEYS GERMANY The Harz Mountains and Saxony 2016 ). After calling at Dresden the line strikes across the plains and through the woods of Brandenburg – the area between two of eastern Gemany’s largest cites is surprisingly empty. Finally, the train descends into a tunnel and arrives at one of the lower levels of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the city’s new main station built close to the line of the Berlin Wall (12).
(12) the station opened in 2006 connecting a new north-south route through the city to the main east west route. It is built on the site of the Lehrter Bahnhof (the station for trains to and from Hamburg) closed in 1951, by which time very few trains linked West Berlin to West Germany.
The Brandenburg Gate
Ted and I had only one night in Berlin, though this was sufficient time for a very quick look round to see what had changed. Colin and I had been in Berlin twice before, in 1989 a month before the Berlin Wall came down and, in 2004, Ted had joined us for two brief visits on our way to and from Poland. After we checked into our hotel, in the east of the city, we caught a tram to Alexanderplatz, then on by S-Bahn to Brandenburger Tor (the Brandenburg Gate). We walked through the gate, had a look at the Bundestag, the German federal parliament building then took a short ride on the strange U-Bahn line U55 to the Hauptbahnof (13). Afterwards we called into the Weihenstephaner bierkeller at Hackescher Markt for a few Bavarian beers then back to the hotel for an early night.
The Bundestag, Berlin
This brief visit brought back memories of our 1989 trip. Getting to West Berlin was an adventure in itself – we travelled by corridor train from Nürnberg on 3 October. On arrival at the West/East German border the train pulled into a yard surrounded by watchtowers manned by armed guards. They watched over the train while their colleagues and their dogs searched the coaches thoroughly and checked our documents. The public address announcement was along the lines of ‘this train is now sealed until it reaches West Berlin. No one is allowed to leave the train and if they attempt to do so they will be shot. Welcome to the German Democratic Republic and we wish you a pleasant journey through our beautiful country’. When we called at Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (where the train had to reverse) we pulled into an out of the way platform with armed guards stationed along it to ensure no-one alighted. Whether this was routine or due to the anti-government demonstrations taking place in Leipzig at the time we didn’t know. While writing this, a TV programme about the fall of the Berlin Wall mentioned that a major demonstration had taken place in Leipzig on 2 October where the army and police, who had been expected to attack protesters, had backed off for the first time.
Give us a call and we’ll tear down the wall. Steve and Colin, 1989
While in West Berlin we went to see the wall and posed on the site of Potsdamer Platz, the main intersection of pre-war Berlin, where the old tram tracks led straight into the wall (pictured). New, impressive blocks of flats could be seen on the eastern side – they were show flats, lived in by trusted Party members, to give the impression that living standards were high in the East. We looked across at the Brandenburg Gate, just behind the wall on the Eastern side and the Reichstag parliament building, unused since the fire of 1933. We returned to Potsdamer Platz in 2005 to find a massive office development on the site. Today the Brandenburg Gate is an accessible tourist attraction and the Reichstag has been restored and returned to use in 1999 as the Bundestag federal parliament building.
The Brandenburg Gate from the West
On 5 October 1989 we decided to visit East Berlin for the day. We tried to enter via the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn crossing point, which we had read was open to foreigners. I passed through the first checkpoint vaguely waving a passport. Colin was stopped by the border guards and we were huckled back to the station platform and the West. Perhaps they were being strict that day – I could possibly pass for German in a crowd but Colin, with ginger hair and Scottish light blue complexion, would have difficulty. We decided to try Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point for foreigners only – and therefore less crowded with more time for border guards to interrogate us. Each person was taken to an individual cubicle, stared at for a while by a guard, given a 24 hour visa for 5 Deutschmarks and ordered to change 25 Deutschmarks for 25 Ostmarks – the 1 to 1 exchange rate was about 5-10 times different from the real rate. This was the black market rate as the import or export of Ostmarks was forbidden. And then we were in.
Ostmarks and pfennigs
By this stage we needed a beer and headed to the nearest beer garden – many of the other day visitors did the same. I recollect the beer being excellent and cheap even at the inflated exchange rate. There were several people collecting empty glasses- we thought it was overstaffing until Colin, who had some German, noticed a tiny sign hidden in a corner which said there was a deposit for the glass. The collectors were not best pleased when we took our own glasses back to the bar.
Changing of the guard
We wandered past some hard currency shops and arrived at the Neue Wache war memorial (then known as the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism) as they were changing the guard in a camp display of marching. The area was decked out with flags to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic and rehearsals were taking place for the Republic Day parade. This took place on the 7 October, presided over by the Head of State since 1976, Erich Honecker, with guests including Mikhail Gorbachev (USSR), Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Yasser Arafat (Palestine). By the 18 October Honecker was forced to resign, ending up in exile in Chile, and the Wall was opened on 9 November. On our visit we were aware that things were happening in Eastern Europe and thought some of the guards were a little jumpy. Maybe this was just normal.
Alexanderplatz in 1989 and 2019
We reached Alexanderplatz, where model apartment blocks led off into the distance and in 2004 the area was much the same with more traffic. We were staying in Köpenick to the east of the city and had travelled in by tram – it was easy to spot the route taken the Red Army into Berlin by the total lack of pre-war buildings (on our trip from Berlin to Warsaw we could see how easy it was for troops and tanks to roll across the endless plain). Today several of the blocks around Alexanderplatz are empty and awaiting demolition.
Back in 1989 we made our way to the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas’ Quarter – pictured), another DDR (German Democratic Republic) showpiece. Built on the site of the oldest area of Berlin it was reconstructed in the 1980s to look like a medieval area (except it was constructed from of concrete slabs). While there we had a few beers and some food in a café-bar, Zum Nussbaum, where we got talking to an East German couple in Berlin for a break to celebrate their wedding anniversary. He worked for a state company which made lenses and optical equipment (it may have been Zeiss) and laughed at the poor quality of my cheap Western watch. After a while we were told to move tables as ours was now reserved – we were about to argue but the couple looked scared and asked us not to. Sure enough, a black limo drew up, some important Party people got out and took our table.
Round the corner we spotted a row of Trabants and I stopped to take a photograph. I hadn’t noticed (Colin had) that the car behind me was full of a very large woman beckoning me in, presumably looking for something hard (currency). It transpired that several other cars had women occupants as well – obviously a recognised business venue. We beat a retreat and made our way back to Checkpoint Charlie and West Berlin. As night fell over the East so did the pollution from cheap brown coal and the Trabis – it was clearly noticeable how much cleaner the air was in West Berlin.
Back to 2019 and it was the end of our trip. The following morning Ted and I made our way to Tegel airport for the flight home. We had thought of travelling by train to Amsterdam but the vagaries of flight prices meant that Berlin – Amsterdam – Newcastle cost less than the Amsterdam – Newcastle leg on the same plane. We had a few hours to wait at Schiphol and spent more cash on a couple of beers and a plate of nachos than we would have done to keep us both legless for several days in Slovakia – back to reality.
Accommodation. Our hotel was the NH Berlin Alexanderplatz booked via www.nh-hotels.com . Like many hotels it wasn’t where it said it was, but a 10 minute tram ride away. However, it was comfortable and reasonable.
Back in 2005 we stayed in Spandau, west of the city, on our way to Poland. The pleasant rooms were attached to a brewery and brewpub – Brauhaus Spandau. The bed and breakfast rate included a litre of beer and on Sunday became Bed and (huge) Brunch. I’ve checked and it is still there. On our return we stayed in Köpenick, an old town in eastern Berlin, clearly missed by the advancing Red Army. We discovered a small brewpub in a former tram shelter – the Schlossplatzbrauerie Coepenick – it still operates, the only downside being that it is a smoking pub.
Getting around. For all but the shortest journeys by S and U- Bahn, tram and bus the single fare is €2.80 for two hours. A day ticket (valid until 0300 the following morning) costs €7. The buses to Tegel Airport are included. More information at www.bvg.de . West Berlin scrapped its tram network but the Soviet Zone (East Berlin) kept theirs. While there have been a few short extensions opened in the past thirty years, in general, if you are on a tram you are in the former East Berlin.
(13) U55 was a short underground line, with a single two-coach train which pootled back and forward for 1.8km from Brandenburger Tor to the Hauptbahnof with an intermediate stop at the Bundestag. Opened in 2009, the stations are full size and dwarf the train. The was planned as an extension to the U5 line, but finance and construction difficulties plagued it. however, since our visit the link between the two lines opened in December 2020 and the U55 is now part of the U5 and both tracks are in use by full-size trains.
Our ticket and transit visa to cross East Germany by train
Thanks to Stu Hannaford, Dave Kerridge, Steve Law, Dave Webster and Jochen Werres for joining Ted and Steve Gillon on parts of the journey. Ted would have been fed up with Steve G’s limited conversation otherwise. All prices mentioned were correct in late 2019. Apologies if any of the Hungarian, Slovakian, Czech and German spellings of place names etc. are wrong.
The guides used to plan the journey were (i) The Rough Guide to Budapest, Charles Hebbert and Norm Longley, 6th edition, 2015, Rough Guides. A more up to date 7th edition (2018) is available. (ii) The Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics, Rob Humphreys, 4th edition, 1998, Rough Guides. They seem to have ceased producing a guide to Slovakia after 2002, though it was the best guide I could find to eastern Slovakia (iii) Czech and Slovak Republics, DK Eyewitness Travel, 2018 revision is good for Bratislava and Prague but coverage of Eastern Slovakia is cursory. With little knowledge of Slovakia purchase of the map Slovenská Republika by BB Kart, Scale 1:750,000, 2012, helped us to find out where we were. Planning the railway journeys was made easier by the European Rail Timetable, Summer 2019 edition, European Rail Timetable Ltd. After the trip I reread Anna Funder, Stasiland – stories from behind the Berlin Wall, Granta, 2003, which helps to understand what life was like in East Berlin and the DDR.
The transport and accommodation sites used to organise the journey are mentioned in the text. The Man in Seat 61 http://www.seat61.com helped to understand how to purchase tickets from the various railway websites. As usual Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org provided most of the background information and http://www.ratebeer.com was used as a guide to decent pubs and beer. http://www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk provided more information about Banská Bystrica and http://www.vt.sk about the High Tatras.
Photo credits: The picture of Lánchíd Söröző is a scan of a postcard from the pub which is credited to Szász Péter (bp.underground.hu). The picture of Central Apartments is a scan of their own leaflet. All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following which were sourced via Google Images: The Budapest tram is from http://www.hungarybudapest-guide.com . The Slovakian Railways logo is from http://www.commons.wikimedia.org . The Hotel Lux is from http://www.youtube.com, uploaded by adresarfiriem.sk . The group photo in U Vočka was taken by one of the other customers.
Copyright: Text and photos (except for those mentioned above) are © Copyright Steve Gillon, 2020.