On the hunt for a fruit market; time for breakfast...
After a routine, yet non-intrusive inspection from Polish customs aboard the train to Budapest, the Slovaks performed no passport control at the border. I was not particularly worried and the steward in charge of our wagon woke me at some unheard of hour to tell me it was time soon to get off. I woke none of the others in my compartment, all bound for Hungary. He made sure I traveled no further than my ticket indicated.
In the morning mist of 4:30 am, Košice does very little to motivate you to get out of your sleeping compartment. The city, Slovakia’s second largest, is encircled by hills and bluffs, all poisoned with the same tired apartment tenements. I forced myself onto the platform, only to see more of Legoland gone terribly wrong. Faceless apartment buildings cut into the hillsides and run down the main arteries that lead into town.
Of course, an impression of any town in a foreign country reflects the existing attitude of the beholder. Unshaven, hungry, temporarily homeless and only Polish pieces of shrapnel in my pocket, it was a dreary beginning to the day. But lo and behold, I found a nifty and inexpensive place to
the fountains show off in different colors at night...
stay, danced the jitterbug when the bank machine accepted my card, showered, shoved some fresh fruit in me, and went out for a coffee. Within three hours or so, things were looking up. Upon taking a second look at Košice, it was a rather welcoming spot after all!
My guidebook describes Slovak as a “complex Slavic language.” Mmmm. Really? Is there any other kind? Imagine for a moment that a Polish man marries and has a child with a Slovak, which I am sure has come to pass. In a matter of a few years, the child would be terribly confused, próbabły writing sěńtęnceŝ thąt łóok líke thiŝ. My only consolation is that words sound like Ukrainian, at least the basic ones do. The word for “thank you” is essentially the same. It makes sense. Košice is about one hour from the Ukrainian border.
Košice’s tiny and dense Old Town, its Stare Mesto, is the place to be. It was spared the Communist architectural Armageddon. While a bit shabby on some of the side streets where graffiti has climbed all over the walls, it is a neat area to walk around, take in a sight or two if
No News Is Good News
Townsfolk waking up...
you’d like, or lounge in the endless beer tents and beer gardens that line Hlavná, the main street. The elaborately colored roof of its cathedral, belonging to St. Elizabeth, overshadows all other buildings. The park at the hub of the Stare Mesto is a setting for an awesome fountain of rising and crashing geysers. No bench nearby has an open space. People sit and stay for a long time just to stare at the spectacle. In fact, this fountain renders all others in Košice a huge disappointment; they look and sound like they are simply a place to pee in comparison. When lit at night in shades of red, yellow, and white, it is easy to notice the few tourists in Košice; their cameras are out trying to capture the eye-pleasing show. The city pumps music through loudspeakers throughout the center, making it a very pedestrian-friendly area to explore. It is a scene so beautiful, a blind man could appreciate just the sound alone. Since a small minority live in the center, sentencing the rest of Košice’s residents to those high rise prison cells, it is no wonder why so many choose to loaf around here.
A medieval tower here,
St. Stephen's Cathedral
Thew roof is rather noteworthy...
19th-century theater there, and a healthy number of bookstores, and I must admit that Košice and I get along rather well.
I am at train stations often because they are, of course, my point of arrival and departure, but I also book tickets in advance when possible. Eventually, I find a sandwich stand, buy a drink, and have a look around the platform and wagons awaiting passengers to board. I marvel at where I can go from a particular station. Take Košice, for example. I have two routes to take to Bratislava, three trains a day to Budapest, and can get back to Ukraine through here if need be. Prague is no problem. A train a day goes straight to Kyiv and must pass through Lviv and Ternopil. I wonder about the couchettes and what first class would be like. Is the train a local one or an Intercity? I hear the pounding of the engines overhead. I just like being at the station. By the time I leave, I have most of the timetables memorized. And with a bus station nearby, well, now I can compare! This fascinates me to no end.
Yet, as with so many
Old and new often clash...
other towns, train stations, like the one in Košice, attract the grungiest of elements. Topless and scurvy gypsy children scamper about the front entrance screaming uncontrollably. They pull each other’s hair and kick at their shins. Mom appears, drunk, obese, shirt soaked, cigarette in one hand and half empty bottle in the other. She puts the bottle down and absolutely wallops her two children. The force of the blow is so powerful they roll to a tree. Mom yells at the children, takes a swig and a drag at the same time, and the children when they come to from their amusement park ride of an assault, begin to cry horrifically. No one pays them any attention, however. They, like gypsies in other regions of Europe are invisible to mainstream society. Mainstream society looks the other way.
Dusks start to envelope Košice. Next to where the children stopped rolling, a soiled, a one-armed man is carrying an adamant argument with a smashed out telephone booth, roof torn away. Curious thing, though, is that he is losing the argument very badly. Two other men imbibe on vodka while leaning on the entrance to one of the platforms, ogling the prettiest of
The Real Thing
Budweiser the way it's supposed to be...
Košice’s attractive women.
All of a sudden, I notice most of the taxis have sped away with passengers. Neither departures nor arrivals are scheduled for a long while. It is quiet and eerily dark. Having gotten a taste of Košice’s underbelly, witnessed a felony on two minors, and some good old-fashioned sexual harassment, it was time to head for the lit cobblestoned boulevards of the Old Town.
Slovakia is cheap. My hotel room sets me back about $11 USD a night. A cold half liter of Slovakia’s finest lager or pilsner ranges anywhere from 65¢ to 90¢. When Oliver brought me the check for last night’s dinner, a huge portion of roasted chicken stew and steamed rice, plus my two beers, my eyebrows went crooked. This brought Oliver back to the table to practice more of his English.
“Is there a problem?”
“I think so.” I showed him the print out. “The price. Are you sure?”
“Yes. Too much?”
In USD, the bill was around $4.40. “Too little.”
He got a good tip.
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