LAST Friday, when I went to visit my grandparents in a nearby town, I came home furious and frozen to death. Next morning I woke up with a terrible cold.
The reason was that I had to wait for a bus (autobus) for one and a half hours in this cold weather. Some of the people who were waiting with me lost their patience and left. I did not give up, though, and went to double check the bus schedule (cestovný poriadok), carefully reading the tiny instructions (značky) accompanying the departure times (čas odchodu).
One of the instructions, indicated by the lower case letter "d", read: The bus goes on Fridays, October 31, 2001 and March 28, July 4, October 31, 2002; and does not go on July 6, November 2, December 28, 2001 and January 4, March 29, July 5, August 30, November 1, 2002.
This complicated information completely confused me. That day was Friday, but I started to doubt it. I was not even sure anymore that I knew the right date (dátum). I read the sentence again and again. Had I missed something there that said the bus wouldn't come? Should I keep waiting because it was just late?
Travelling (cestovanie) in Slovakia by public transport (verejná doprava) is an adventure, the kind of adventure that raises your adrenaline whether you like it or not. And it is an adventure for locals as well as foreigners, only foreigners often find it all the more complicated because of the language barrier.
First you have to figure out what kind of train or bus you want to take, then what kind of ticket you need to buy and then how to read the schedule. If you have access to the Internet, the latter is an easy task, as you just go to the relevant web site [see below], type the names of the initial and final stops and the date and times you want to travel in a box, and the computer finds you the desired information. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can find yourself stuck at a bus or train station trying to figure out the right bus or train connections (sometimes you will have to change a few times on the journey). And it can get worse: You may find that vandals have ripped down the schedule or written all over it.
In Slovakia there are intercity buses, or medzimestské, which connect you to towns surrounding a city, e.g. the Bratislava-Pezinok route; long-distance buses, or express, which run over 100 kilometres with a limited number of stops and a half-hour break - prestávka - after four hours of travelling; and international buses or medzištátne.
The structure for trains is similar. There are slow trains (osobný vlak or osobák, which stop at every station), fast trains (rýchlik, which stop only in big cities) and intercity and express trains, which are the fastest and stop in selected stations. The fare for trains is calculated from the basic slow-train fare - so you pay extra money, or príplatok, for the faster trains. In addition, you must buy a seat reservation (miestenka) if you are travelling in an intercity or express train, and it is advisable when travelling by rýchlik.
Foreigners between the ages of 15 and 26 can buy a Junior Rail Plus card, which entitles them to a discount (zľava) when travelling by train. The card can be bought at any train station for Sk689, if you bring along a passport-size photograph. It is valid for one year. Holders of the Junior Rail Plus card get 25 per cent off the regular price of a ticket (obyčajné cestovné) in a second-class carriage (druhá trieda). This is the case no matter where you are going in Europe. When buying the card, you can designate your most-used route, for which you receive a 50 per cent discount.
Tickets for intercity and international buses and trains can be bought several days ahead of travel, and should be bought at least one hour before departure. Remember to come to the train station some time before your train leaves if you want to buy miestenka in rýchlik.
In any Slovak train station you can buy a ticket reservation from anywhere to anywhere in Slovakia or Europe, even from Paris to Brussels. Just remember to have your passport ready when crossing borders.
Foreign Affairs is a regular column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the thrills and spills of life in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs will appear on stands November 25, Vol. 8, No. 45.