Sunday, September 29, 2013


St. Martin's Cathedral Where 11 Kings and 8 Queens were crowned
Visiting Bratislava, Slovakia was a late decision in our trip planning.  Berlin, Prague, Vienna - easy choices.  But, Bratislava?  Luckily, we included it to add one more major Austrian-Hungarian Empire city to the tour but found a surprising connection to Paris, Texas. 

When Czechoslovakia internally parted ways in 1989, Bratislava became  capital of the new country of Slovakia and Prague governed the Czech republic.   Slovakia differs significantly from its western twin - 
less prosperous and more Catholic and rural.   Its roots reach deep into Hungary, a part of the Habsburg monarchy for almost 400 years.   Strangely, the centrally placed Bratislava was a favorite coronation destination for the royals.  Eleven kings and eight queens were crowned at its St. Martin’s cathedral, including Maria Theresa of Austria.

Historical Bratislava suffered greatly under communism.  Two-thirds of the buildings in Old Town were cleared for highway and bridge construction as well as for building large, impersonal prefab apartments.  The comparison to its charming and well-preserved sister capital of Prague is tragic.  Today, thanks to increasing numbers of tourists, Bratislava has restored what it could and relies on its energy to be quite welcoming. 

Tourist Mini-Train
We arrived at the 1950's train station with its small kiosks in front selling hot dogs and a sign encouraging us to  “have an amazing time in Bratislava”.  A taxi ride along the Danube river passed the intergalactic Novy Most bridge and stopped near town central where we jumped on a small, red mini-train that very slowly moved through the downtown pedestrian streets.  The driver identified disparate sites,   “On your right is St. Martin’s Cathedral, on your left is one of Bratislava’s many playful  manhole covers” . 

Marianna Gajanova and Betty Swasko
It was a warm spring afternoon and we later strolled the stone streets and sidewalks with some of the city’s 450,000 inhabitants,  waiting for our 3 p.m. appointment to meet Marianna Gajanova. She is a second cousin twice removed to Paris resident Paul Swasko.  Paul’s great grandfather and Mariana’s greatgreatgrandfather was Jan Szvacsko, born in 1861 in Slovakia.  An American  family member had tracked down Mariana’s family.   Paul’s wife, Betty Swasko,  arranged our meeting.  As Mariana walked towards us, we were all struck by her resemblance to the Swasko’s youngest daughter, Kristi.  The shared genes played out in the blond hair, height, and even their walking gate.  

Betty Swasko and daughter, Kristi Swasko
Mariana grew up in Cierna Lehota, a small agricultural town in the hills of Eastern Slovakia, with little to offer its youth.  Facing a post-communism 30 % unemployment rate,   she wisely considered education her best way out, choosing to study German in a bilingual boarding school a long bus ride from her hometown and then mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Zilina.  Her facility in German and engineering were the perfect combination to work in her country’s biggest industry - automobile assembly. 

Volkswagen was the first major automobile company to set up shop in Bratislava in 1994.  Since then, the company has continued to expand, producing through the years the Passat, VW GolfA3, Polo, and AudiQ7 as well as many parts for other cars.    Peugeot-Citroen and Kia followed suit in 2004 , meaning  Slovakia makes more cars per capita than any other country in the world and is known as the Detroit of Europe.  This industry’s presence has lifted many Slovakians from the countryside into relative prosperity.   

Happily, Mariana’s English was quite good, and we visited over a typical dinner of dumplings, cabbage, ham, sour cream, and beer.   When asked if she liked beer, she smiled,  “I’m Slovakian, aren’t I?” We learned Mariana is now an assembly planner for SUV door systems for Volkswagen and Audi  and her boyfriend, Rado, works as an internal auditor for CEIT Consutling that provides external support for Volkswagen.   They drive a Volkswagen, of course,  and because of expensive real estate prices in Bratislava,  have bought a house 24 miles outside of town.  Despite their strong earning capacity (especially in Slovakia), 25% of their salaries goes to taxes with the house payment eating up more.   They have to plan carefully to even visit her home 200 miles away.

Marianna knows she’s fortunate to have her job and to be living where she does.   She was only two when the regime fell but  heard from many that under communism, everyone had a job and seemed happier.  That may be true of her parents’ generation but Marianna took advantage of her country’s education and now participates and excels in a very capitalistic world. Her generation is the hope for Slovakia.  And the truth is, both Slovakia and the United States are lucky to have those Swasko genes. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Rockwall, Texas - Great Week-End Destination

The Harbor at Rockwall, Texas

Pop quiz - Where does Rockwall, Texas get its name? I felt  foolish after learning the answer.  Rockwall is named after the rock wall discovered in the 1850's  - just about the time the community was formed.   At five miles long, it comes with its own controversy - is it a geological formation or the work of a lost civilization?  History 2 Channel will try to answer that in a November program called “America Unearthed.”   Regardless of the answer,  Rockwall is a surprisingly pleasant week-end getaway spot.

Rockwall is old for Texas, platted in 1854, ten years after Paris.    It was a stop on the National Road of the Republic of Texas that  brought early settlers to Dallas after crossing the Red River near Clarksville.  Rockwall stayed viable with agriculture and later, the railroad, until Dallas’ economy took off in the 1900s and left the town behind.

More recent history explains how a sleepy, little Texas town  (11,000 residents in 1990 ) grew 400 per cent in 20 years  to become one of the wealthiest in the state (median household income in 2012 $77,500 compared to $49,000 for Texas).  Two decisions changed the community’s trajectory.  In 1969, construction of Lake Ray Hubbard, bisected by the recently completed I-30,  turned Rockwall into a lake town.  Dallas just had to grow  enough for Rockwall to scoop up commuters.  And in 2003, local government entities  and developers, Sara and Rob Whittle, signed on to a vision of the Harbor.  The City committed lake front park space, the County gave tax incentives and the Whittles built a lakeside Hilton Hotel in 2008.  New stores and restaurants followed along the boardwalk.  Summer concerts and a sunset harbor cruise appeared.  It would be easy to just hang around the lake but there’s more downtown.

Funky Life House Bakery and Disc Golf
I met Bethany Browning for coffee at The Life House  Bakery, north of the  Rockwall square.  Bethany was Main Street Coordinator in Paris before landing the same position with Rockwall.  She lives ten minutes from work with her husband, Jason, and their daughter.   They have a lake view from their home and can confirm the town’s motto - a small town feeling with big city amenities.  She confesses to making a “run” on the box stores along I-30 every week or two but her heart is with Main Street.

Truthfully, downtown Rockwall does not have the “bones” to build on that Paris does.  It was a poor relation compared to Paris in earlier years.  But what Rockwall lacks in historical buildings, it makes up with money.  An $8.5 million bond issue passed recently to renovate downtown.  Sidewalks will be replaced, seating walls built, a pedestrian street developed, and parking lots brought close. Three solid restaurants already stand on or near the square - Bin 303, Zanata’s and The Fatted Calf (which has a wonderful Sunday Brunch).  New stores are opening.  In visiting with employees, waitresses, and owners, all love being downtown and in Rockwall.  The designer at Expressions Home Decor increased her walk-in traffic significantly since her move to the center of town.   A waitress at Bin 303 confessed she never crosses the lake as everything she needs is close-by.  At Enjoy, a kitchen store, the salesperson had only recently relocated to Rockwall from Dallas and hoped never to return.

With an average age of 36 (you read that right), that population’s interests are emphasized.  The City has miles of trails built by the city and required of  developers.   An unusually large Home Brewer Association provides beer tasting at events.  Two heavily used disc golf courses are available.  The San Martino Winery hosts live music events weekly.    And, of course, the lake fills with boats of all kinds on week-ends.

Bethany realizes much is happening in Rockwall.  An e-mail that day named eight new restaurants coming to town, including  Mellow Mushroom, Fuddrucker, Dunkin Donuts and The Londoner.   With growth, comes traffic and Rockwall has this in spades.  I-30 speaks for itself but the numbers of trucks and cars passing alongside downtown was also notable.  The city and county are small and are quickly being filled in meaning the presence of road construction is constant.   But when faced with rising student population, the Rockwall school district chose to build a second 4-A high school rather than offer one huge 5-A school - another attempt to keep a small town feel to the community.

Rockwall is an easy drive from Paris with big city restaurants, hotel, waterfront, trails and shopping. If you are there on a week-day, don't miss the new beautiful, cathedral like Rockwall County Courthouse with its state of the art electronics and a touching veterans memorial next door.  And Bethany let me in on a little known route.    When returning to Paris, try driving north on 205 to Farmersville and then take Highway 78 to 82.    You’re quickly out of developments and into rolling hills - a lovely drive back home after your stay in Rockwall.  It’s worth the extra time, she promises.

 Bin 303 - Bin 303 Website - Try the Bin Burger

Zanata's - Zanata's Website

The Fatted Calf - The Fatted Calf Website 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pension Pertschy, A Palace Revisited 44 Years Later

Reception Area on Second Floor of Pension Pertschy

I remember the room - beds for six, high ceilings, large windows opening to the street below.  It was 1969 and my family had been traveling in Europe for weeks, arriving in Vienna on July 17th.  The large, friendly woman in reception at the Pension Pertschy offered to house us all in one room.  “Talk about togetherness”, commented my mother in her diary.  Mom had booked the pension upon  recommendation of “Europe on $5 a Day”, the book that opened up a world of economic travel in Europe.  In the heart of historic Vienna, the hotel’s location allowed us to walk to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna State Opera, Spanish Riding School and the Albertina museum.  

Finished Exterior dates from 1605
The building had been a palace as early as 1605 for the Italian Cavriani family, who were drawn to Vienna for the fighting horses.  They married into the royal Hapsburg family and  constructed the five story home around a courtyard  that fronted two parallel streets.  Their wealth is reflected in the finished building on both exteriors.  Rooms later became apartments and then hotel rooms.  

Fast forward forty four years to 2013.  My friends and I were planning a trip to Vienna and one recommended the Pension Pertschy based on its location and price.  Only after reviewing my mother’s diary did I realize it was the same hotel we had used in 1969.  Since it was still owned by the same family, I wanted to know what had happened in the last four decades  and asked to speak with a family member upon arrival.  

Licia Pertschy is married to Thomas, son of the original owners of the pension.  His father was Hungarian whose family left for Canada when the Communists arrived.  His mother was German who moved to Canada for the adventure.  They met in Toronto, married and had two children there.  Mr. Pertschy’s sister, Therese (Aunt Resi), wrote them of an opportunity to buy a pension in Vienna.  After purchasing the pension together in 1964, the family moved to Vienna where their son, Thomas, was born.  Aunt Resi would have been the woman who greeted us in 1969.  

The business began with a reception area, washroom, and 12 rooms that had housed military students from a nearby academy.  Being named in “Europe on $5 a Day” was a huge boost for them.  Over the years, the family added rooms as they became available with 55 rooms now used by guests.   In 2005, a large, exterior elevator replaced the small, cramped one we used in 1969.  The family works hard to maintain its four star rating, a rating system that is less about luxury and more about safety, security and certain amenities.

Breakfast Buffet at Pension Pertschy
Today, the rooms are not as large although they can still offer spacious rooms for a family. The baroque exterior has been maintained.   Televisions and wifi are now standard.   Its location still can’t be beat.  And breakfast has improved dramatically from a Continental breakfast of a solitary hard roll, jam, butter and coffee to a buffet of 6-8 cheeses, boiled and scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, many breads (really good ones with grains similar to Paris Bakery), mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, basil, chopped fresh fruit, chocolate cake, local jams, honey and honey comb, six kinds of cereal, dried apricots, raisins, seeds, prunes, fresh plain and sweet yoghurt and great coffee.
Breakfast Buffet at Pension Perstchy

Their guests have always included Americans but I didn’t hear many of our accents at breakfast.  Licia noted a larger number of Spaniards now visiting.  Statistics bear out the changing face of visitors to Vienna.   Germans and Austrians are the largest groups, as always.  But in 2012,  Russian tourists surpassed the number from the United States, China’s travelers grew by 40% and Saudi Arabians’ by 76% - all contributing to a record year.  

Courtyard of Pension Pertschy
Licia mentioned some of the new, large hotels built in the last two years, including a Kempinski, Four Seasons, Park Hyatt, and Marriott hotel - a surprisingly  late appearance of these hotel chains.  She thought Vienna’s designation as one of the best places to live in the world is contributing to the increase in attention.   In contrast to the United States, Europe has long had a tradition of independent, family owned hotels with only half the hotel rooms in Vienna being “branded” or associated with a chain.  The rest are under private management such as the Pension Pertschy and many could qualify as boutique hotels.  Whether the Pertschy family will continue the hotel another generation is not decided.  But if I ever returned to Vienna, I would love to introduce the Pension Pertschy to our grandchildren.  

Pension Pertschy Website

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