Last Sunday, I returned from my small grand tour of Central Europe. The tour consisted of visiting three capital cities – Budapest in Hungary, Bratislava in Slovakia and Vienna in Austria, in the space of five days. Of course, five days would be barely sufficient for the smallest of these, Bratislava, and to really see Vienna would take a couple of weeks. However, this was what I had, and I put it to use. I think it was pretty good use.
The trip was actually organised by the support association of the Tapiola Sinfonietta, a classical orchestra operating in Espoo. The support association occasionally organises these trips to check out operas and concerts in other countries – Lithuania, Germany, Austria… and in this case, Slovakia. My mother got me a ticket. This, though, meant that the schedule was fairly tight and we had an event of some description every night – a concert, dinner at a fancy restaurant, an opera.
The Hungary portion of the trip actually consisted of takeoff and landing at Budapest Ferihegy International Airport, which for some reason had been picked as our airport of choice. I do get not using Bratislava’s airport, since it’s apparently a slice of postcommunist Hell frequented mostly by RyanAir, but Vienna would’ve been about 150 kilometers closer to Bratislava than Budapest. Possibly a cost issue, though with this troupe, I can’t see cost ever being an issue.
For the record, I think I was the only person on the trip who was under 50. Definitely the only one under 40, and the majority were over 60. It was not quite as horrible as it sounds, but there were times in conversations when I could feel myself standing on the edge of the yawning gulf of ages separating myself from the rest. Me, I turned 25 last Friday.
We didn’t see much of Hungary, but I’ve been to Budapest twice before. What we did see was the rural Hungary north of Budapest, where I noticed something quite striking about the landscape. Though it was just fields and forest, it was immediately recognisable as being non-Finnish. In Finland, forests are mainly spruce, pine and birch. They’re airy, there’s a lot of undergrowth and the canopy lets in light. In Hungary, it was this great, big billowy wall of leaves that blocked all visibility. In the few roads we drove through a forest, we saw there was practically no undergrowth and it was very dim. I’m not entirely sure what trees are prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe, but I understand beech, oak, willow and chestnut are common. This, though, led me to think about the differences in the cultural significance of the forest between Finland and Central Europe.
In Finland, the forest is viewed as a place of safety. I understand the Finns in ancient times fled Viking raids into the woods that back then covered pretty much the whole of Finland. The forest wasn’t exactly a friendly place, but it was a source of food, firewood and building materials. It wasn’t going to eat you as long as you respected its ability to do so and weren’t a complete twat.
From Central and Eastern Europe, then, we get stuff like the Grimm’s Tales, where the forest is depicted as something clearly hostile. It’s where wolves roam, the witches dwell and people are taken by fearsome things that go bump in the dark. You get Hansel and Gretel, you get Blair Witch Project (with its woodlands nearly as dense as my backyard).
I’m not making an academic thesis out of this thing and will probably sooner or later get a folklorist in here telling me I’m full of it, but it is an interesting point of note and something to think about when developing settings.
So, then, Bratislava.
It’s an old city, but fairly small. The portions of the city relevant to a tourist are huddled close enough together that I had no need to get acquainted with the local public transportation system. Even with the damage done by the Communist regime, the Old Town is very pretty.
Apparently, the Communists tore down a portion of the Old Town, including a synagogue that even the goddamn Nazis hadn’t touched, to build a bridge over the Danube. It is not the ugliest bridge I have ever seen, but it does get a place in the top ten.
As an interesting bit of trivia, next to the bridge there’s the St. Martin’s Cathedral. This St Martin, as far as I can tell, is the same one who becomes an important plot point in Flesh & Blood, an early Paul Verhoeven film starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It is quite good and great inspiration for gritty D&D or Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play.
There are two medieval castles of interest in Bratislava. Firstly, there’s the Bratislava Castle, which is unfortunately closed for renovation until 2011. Secondly, there’s Devín Castle, built in the 700s and demolished by Napoleon in 1809 after the Siege of Pressburg, and some fifteen kilometres outside the actual city. We didn’t go there, but since the primary function of the castle was to watch over the Danube, I got some lovely photos when we sailed past on our way to Vienna.
Finding a game store in Bratislava was a bit of an ordeal, but I managed it. Firstly, I gathered a bunch of likely addresses online, from places such as the Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop store finder. Apparently, no GW stores in Slovakia, but there is one that stocks a small amount of miniatures, but no roleplaying games.
Strangely enough, the store primarily sold Doc Martens shoes and Games Workshop stuff. This causes me some cognitive dissonance. According to the store clerk, all RPGs had to be ordered through the internet and no shop in Bratislava sold them.
I’m assuming she meant English-language roleplaying games because, as I was making my way back to the hotel, two streets from the first game store I spotted a sign outside a store bearing the image of a dragon. The display window held Magic cards and video games, and I figured it was worth a shot. The store, by the way, was Blroh, on the Heydukova. In there, I found a very friendly shop clerk, who may have also been the manager or owner, and we chatted at length about roleplaying games.
Apparently, there’s no such thing as a Slovakian roleplaying game, but there are several Czech games, of which he presented two. Apparently Czech and Slovak are close enough as languages that Slovakians can understand Czech with just a bit of work. One was the mandatory D&D-ripoff that every country seems to develop at some point, Drači doupě, and the other one was a new game called Střepy snů. It had a pretty cover and it retailed for only €17, so I bought it. The guy also gave me a 10% discount, which was very nice of him. In addition to the Czech games, the store carried nothing but the D&D 4E Starter Set.
I understand the game is a multigenre game of some description, and the guy compared it to GURPS. However, my Czech is nonexistent, and I cannot confirm.
Yeah, I bought a game I can’t understand. It’s what I do. I go to foreign countries, track down their game stores and buy their weird games that I can’t read. I’ve also got Drakar och Demoner and Das Schwarze Auge, though I’ve got enough Swedish and German that I can tackle them with a dictionary and make some sense of things. Czech, though… no.
But it’s got a really pretty cover.
Bratislava also has a museum of arms and armour, in the six-floor tower of the St. Michael’s Gate. While it was nice that all texts were in both Slovak and English, it was fairly small and anyone with a real interest in military history will probably get nothing new out of it. Still, pretty swords.
On Saturday night, we went to see Boris Godunov, an opera by Modest Mussorgsky. Like all Russian art, it was complex, long and heavy, but it is a very good piece and the plot has all kinds of inspiration for a roleplaying game. After the death of Boris Godunov in 1605, Russia was destabilised, and the following period is known as the Time of Troubles. There was courtly intrigue, mobs killing rulers, and the crown changing heads so fast that it barely touched some of them. There were pretenders to the throne, wars with Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, meddling Jesuits, popular uprisings, and all the ingredients of a good story. Just add vodka. When it was all done in 1613, the new royal house were the Romanovs, who went on to rule Russia until the Commies offed them in 1917.
For Friday, we’d booked ourselves tables at a fancy restaurant that’s in the local TV tower. Great view. However, apparently the electrics of the restaurant had been fried a day or two before, and our booking was relocated to a nearby four-star hotel.
Here, I witnessed the worst service I have ever seen in my life. I’ve been to fifteen countries and restaurants of every stripe and style, but never before have I seen such incompetence and active malice from the waiting staff as was present here.
There were thirty of us, which I understand can be a bit of a handful. However, they’d had at least a day to prepare, and seriously, there are no excuses for some of the stuff. For instance, we ordered light beer, and were told that they were out, and only dark beer was available. However, they merrily served the stuff for every other table. Another table had the same experience with red wine.
Finally, when it came time to pay, our local guide tried to pay with her Visa, only to be told that they don’t take credit cards, forcing her to leave with a restaurant employee to find an ATM and withdraw enough euros to pay for the dinners of thirty people. Fortunately, Slovakia is a very cheap country, but I don’t see her taking another tourist group to that restaurant.
At this point, I felt it completely appropriate to leave a one-cent tip.
On Friday, we took a boat trip up the Danube to see Vienna. On a catamaran, it took some 90 minutes to get there. Apparently, Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest capital cities in the world, with around 65 kilometres between them. According to our guide, Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world, but actually, Brazzaville (The Republic of Congo) and Kinshasa (The Democratic Republic of Congo) lie opposite one another on the banks of the Congo River.
It is a pretty river, the Danube. The trip inspired me, and I now want to see a Mad Max or Waterworld-style postapocalyptic film with speedboating river pirates fighting it out for control of the Danube after the collapse of society. The soundtrack should have a heavy metal version of The Blue Danube.
As it is unlikely we’ll ever get that, it could work as a roleplaying game setting. I’m not quite certain what game system would do fast-paced boat combat well, but I’m open to suggestions. Elsewhere in the setting, Finland would have occupied Estonia as a colonial state. I’m thinking this would work well as a mini-campaign or at least a one-shot. Perhaps a convention game.
Vienna itself is a beautiful old city, and far too large and full of interesting things to be taken in during the four hours we had. This was mostly spent shopping and taking photographs of statues. They seem to have a thing for Franz Josef I over there. It would seem I need to return there at some point in the near future, preferably for a whole week.
I did manage to track down a game store in Vienna, with a rather superior selection compared to its Slovak cousin. They had Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and Dungeons & Dragons, mostly, plus a pile of German games. Since I already owned Das Schwarze Auge, I just picked up the new Ascension for Dark Heresy.
On Sunday, we returned home. Checked out from the hotel at noon, got home around 22:00, for a total of nine hours of travel.
Wherever I go next, I’ll make sure that it’s got its own damn airport. Life’s too short.