Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Kosice, Slovakia

Posted on November 23rd, 2005

Random castle-like building

The final hours before my arrival in Kosice were filled with terrible dread. A number of details had surfaced at the last possible moment, causing me to fear that a two day stop in Kosice would be a blunder comparable to a two day stop in Jersey City. One, it turns out Kosice wasn’t much more than a steel making city. Two, there was only one hostel, several kilometers from the city center. Three, I just wanted to go home. Well, the third reason would have even been a damper on Paradise Island, but it certainly didn’t help Kosice’s chances.

Despite the brevity of my total trip (barely three weeks), two overnight trains and the majority of my nights since leaving Cologne being passed with insufficient, fitful sleep in raucous hostel dorm rooms, I was already running on empty energy-wise and sporting profound travel apathy. This state had contributed to my none too generous impressions of Bratislava and now caused me to positively loathe Kosice even before seeing it. But I was determined to keep my head up for one last city. My goal in Kosice was to sleep like a dead dog in my first private room in two weeks and take a day trip to Levoca, an unspoiled, historic walled town two hours away by bus with a supposed wealth of Renaissance buildings. The possibility of skipping Kosice all together and actually staying in Levoca was killed early on after exhaustive online research revealed that even in high season Levoca has sparring budget accommodations options for a solo traveler. In the off-season, there appears to be nothing.

So, it was with slumped shoulders and deep foreboding that I struggled off the train in Kosice and immediately boarded a Russian castoff tram that would take me on the 25 minute ride out to Hostel Kosmalt. No that’s not it, my day got even worse before that unpleasantness. Before getting on the 25 minute screws-loose tram to the outskirts of Kosice, I labored into both the train and bus station information offices to book passage to Iasi, Romania (my current, temporary hometown if you’re new). It went poorly, to put it mildly. The bus station reported that they didn’t have any buses going anywhere near Romania and the sour bitch running the train station info desk tapped a couple buttons and produced a ludicrous itinerary from Kocise to Iasi, that would require me to backtrack about 350km to Budapest, then take a train all the way down to Bucharest in the south of Romania and then take yet another train back up north to Iasi. Total travel time, about 45 hours. Total cost, about US$150. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of Eastern Europe, to give you an appreciation of this idiotic suggested journey, try to imagine a hexagon with Kosice occupying the top point and Iasi two points over, moving clockwise. The cow in the Kosice train station wanted me to do the goddamn journey counterclockwise, insisting that this was “the only way.” Well, having put in nine years of work at a federal agency, I knew full well that this was motto of the Brotherhood of Lazy, Halfwit Government Stooges (BOLHGS) and I wasn’t buying it. Allow me to briefly fast forward 24 hours when I returned to the train station after carefully studying a map. Bypassing the information office, I got straight in line at the ticket window and asked the lady for a ticket to Oradea, Romania, a fairly sizable city just inside the Romanian border from Hungary (imagine moving clockwise one position in the hexagon model above). This lady’s membership to BOLHGS must have still been on probationary status, because zip-zop she handed me a ticket like it happened every day. And I have no doubt that it does (effing train information office bitch!!!). I knew for a fact that there was a daily train from Oradea to Iasi, so my itinerary was set. New total travel time, 19 hours. Total cost, US$60. A coup, if I do say so myself. And yet further evidence that train station people cannot be trusted, ever. (If you’d like further evidence as to how train station people are all mindless, social deviants whose only pleasure in life is derived from inconveniencing people, read another account of a heinous train station injustice done unto me in the last 800 words of my Nice travelogue.)

So! Back to the spine jangling, 25 minute tram ride to the eastern suburbs of steel-making Kosice. The trip didn’t do much to encourage optimism. Kosice appeared to be a never ending sea of identical, gray apartment blocks, stretching off and disappearing into the smoggy distance. It was dark by the time I reached my stop and as the tram rumbled off, I realized that I had no idea where to go. The directions provided by Hostel Kosmalt abruptly ended after the get-off-the-tram command. I looked around. Nothing but indistinguishable apartment buildings. Eventually I spied a light on in the hairdressers down the street and beseeched them for directions. After some confusion, one of the women finally showed a glint of recognition at the name of the hostel and vaguely shooed me down the street the way I had come. I wandered for several fruitless minutes and then, after a big sigh, I looked up to finally profess my belief in God and implore Him to show me the way, at which point I saw a giant sign lit up on one of the buildings with the hostel’s name. (Ha ha! Still don’t believe in you God! Naa naa!)

The duo of aging women manning the front desk at the hostel didn’t speak a lick of English. They had managed to unearth my reservation, but couldn’t wrap their brains around the concept that I had paid a deposit online when I made the reservation and that they shouldn’t be charging me full price now. While this was going on, I took note of the stream of residents coming in and out of the building. It was clear that this wasn’t just a hostel, it was also student housing and, apparently, temporary accommodations for hard drinking steel workers. Finally, after a lot of shrugging and yapping at each other in uncommon languages, one of the bitties got on the phone and handed me the receiver, an English speaker was on the other end. Things picked up from here. The woman on the other end knew exactly what I was talking about (she was the building manager and the person handling the incoming online reservations) and asked me to hand the phone back to one of the bitties. Unfortunately, even now the bitties didn’t get it. The woman on the other end said she was coming down to sort it out. And boy was I glad that she did. Katarina was not only sharp, kind and wonderfully helpful (I peppered her with numerous questions right on the spot about getting back into the city, Internet access, local grocery stores, etc), but she was also quite nice to look at. Tall, blond and green eyes, with lips that I wanted to put on a stick and suck on like a lollipop. Over the next 36 hours I dreamt up innumerable reasons to appear at Katarina’s door and take up her time and she was patient and accommodating to the bitter end.

My room ended up being large, but basic with a smell of having been recently flooded by the cheapest detergent available in Eastern Europe. None of that mattered though, cause it was mine, all mine baby! And I was going to get naked and soak up the privacy like a roll of Bounty paper towels! Right after dinner. It must be said that the horrendous location (and smell) aside, it wasn’t possible to completely despise Hostel Kosmalt because they employed a bunch of friendly, likable people. The women in the bar/restaurant on the ground floor were very sweet and helpful as we labored through the Slovak-only menu, translating or miming whenever possible in an attempt to find some something that I’d like to eat. There was free wifi, though I had to lug my laptop down to the first floor and sit in a hallway with no power points, so surfing was limited to the strength of my batteries. And did I mention Katarina? The luscious lipped, hostess with the mostess, in five inch spike-heeled leather boots?? Kosice was slowly turning around.

The most memorable part of Hostel Kosmat was the elevators. They had a Russian, leftover, constant motion, dumbwaiter type thing going on. There were no doors, just two open shafts, one going up and one going down, with tiny cubicles moving past every few seconds that you jumped on and off as they creaked by. I’ve never seen anything like it meant for human use. It was very intimidating at first, particularly as I was hauling two heavy bags with me, but I got a sense of the boarding and alighting timing by watching a few students doing it first and then hopped on. It was actually a very cool and efficient system if you take away the part about it being extraordinarily dangerous - I wanted to ask about how many severed limb incidents they had each year, but Katarina’s eyes made me forget the question and I just said something like “Phram crall bong?” – and despite the constant flow of people coming and going from this giant complex, there was almost never a wait to go up or down. The next day the dumbwaiter was not working and I was too chicken to ask what disaster had transpired to cause it to be shut down.

The next morning, I was up early because the cleaning lady decided to let herself in at 7:45AM. I guess she was under the impression that I was only staying one night (the bitties at the front desk still hadn’t gotten it right!) and even though check out time wasn’t until 10:00AM, she was at my door now and so she figured she’d get started cleaning my room. The Ritz, this ain’t people. After groggily dispensing with the cleaning lady I gave up trying to get back to sleep and slogged out to see Kosice.

Once I got things straightened out at the train station, I walked into the city center and was pleasantly surprised to find that central Kosice was still a historic European town at heart, bulls-eyed by the gigantic and wonderful Cathedral of St. Elizabeth. Erected between 1345 and 1508, St. Elizabeth’s is an outstanding late-Gothic cathedral and it gets even better inside. After being let down by successive church interiors in both Poland and Slovakia, I was heartened to see that they had gotten it right in Kosice. Unfortunately, photography was forbidden inside, but rest assured that it is ancient looking, intricately adorned and generally gnarly. Next to the Cathedral are the 14th-century St. Michael’s Chapel (covered in scaffolding and construction material, natch) and the boring, yet strangely engaging Urban Tower.

Cathedral of St. Elizabeth

The Cathedral again with an oddly placed statue in the foreground.

Urban Tower

At this point I had an internal struggle. There was a bus going to Levoca at 12:10 (I had just missed the 10:40) and I couldn’t decide whether it would be more prudent to explore the inviting pedestrian city center streets of Kosice more thoroughly or race out to Levoca (as well as one can “race” on a two hour bus ride), wander the walled town for a couple hours and race back, by which point it would be 7:00 or 8:00PM. I would then need to stock up on train food for the next day, take a thundering tram back out to the hostel, get cleaned up and pack. Furthermore, my train to Oradea was leaving at 5:10 the next morning and did I really want to wear myself down having a big touring day, go to bed late and get up at 4:00AM in total exhaustion for a nine hour train ride? The choice seems clear now, but at the time I was truly stumped. I walked a little further from the train station, admiring the fountains and urban planning from centuries ago, caught sight of more cool looking stuff off in the distance, looked at the clock, said “eff it” and dove deeper into Kosice.

I crisscrossed the city center, stopping at a few of the larger churches and historic buildings like the State Theater and Town Hall, none of which had anything on offer for tourists but were nice to look at, and failed to find the supposed tourism information center (probably for the best, they apparently charge for maps, how lame is that??). I ran across the archeological remains of the Lower Gate, unearthed in 1997, which was the entry point to the town center for centuries before it was stripped down and forgotten in the 1800s. There are a few underground tunnels in this restoration that can be toured, but traveling in the off-season bit me in the ass again. The gates to the tunnels were locked and abandoned. I could have probably arranged something if I had been able to find the information office, but alas. Still, wanting to come away with some factoids that I could some day bore fellow hostelmates with, I diligently wandered from plaque to plaque absorbing information about the Lower Gate and wondering what possessed them to make the gate so damn tiny. It was barely large enough for a couple humans to pass through simultaneously. Did the city planners want vehicle-free streets even back then? Or were the Slovakians using midget horses? We’ll never know.

Lower Gate tunnel

After a heaping kebab, I moved out of the center, exploring ever larger circles where I found the market and several lesser and unidentified churches. I concluded that central Kosice was indeed quite a nice place. It was just too bad that most people had to live a half hour away from all that pleasantness in characterless, giant apartment buildings.

With visions of sneaking in a full eight hours of sleep, despite my 4:00AM wake-up call, I headed back out to the hostel at mid-afternoon, bought a grab bag of fruit, pastries, peanuts and candy bars to get me through the nine hour hard currency blackout I would go through in Hungary as I jockeyed from Slovakia to Romania the following day and climbed into bed just after 8:00PM, where despite everything that I know as fact about my sleeping deficiencies, I managed to fall asleep at that ungodly early hour after only about 30 minutes of rolling around.

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