81: Cobble Gobble: Is China invading Europe one cobblestone at a time?

This cobblestone in Geneva may have been relaid (sett) in modern times, but it is a good example of the use of water-polished eclectic riverstone.

Our little town of Biel has a medieval district laced in cobblestone lanes that slope into the foot of the Jura Mountains.

This gap-toothed cobblestoned street in Bratislava is pretty old and dilapidated, but you can see by the squared edges that these are still quarried stones and are therefore relatively modern.

Not all is as it seems. The cobblestones are not genuine from the Middle Ages as is the village. They are in fact the same black-basalt-coloured cobblestone granite pavers you can have laid in your driveway.

We’ve seen these types of pavers throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovakia, Germany and Austria. They are a menace, in that in some places they are creeping in over ancient cobblestone streets because they provide a smoother surface. Nonetheless, they are still preferred over asphalt, which is what you will find in the charming cultural centre of Basel’s old-town. Shame.

Authentic cobblestone streets can still be found: Bratislava has the most beautiful uneven cobblestone surfaces, which unfortunately I cannot find in my photo-files, dang!  The only photo I can find is of a 1800s “sett” street. Setts hail from the era when squared and quarried stone became more available and towns started replacing local riverbed stone with the flatter setts.

Even impoverished Bratislava is upgrading, so the old rounded riverbed stones that are of varying sizes and colours are on the way out. They are understandably not the easiest to traverse, rendered as they are into miniature hillocks by the pressures of time, the substrata and, of course, the weight of traffic.

Cobblestone in Biel/Bienne's historic quarter. The lack of uniformity in each stone's size suggests these are not from China.

It is perhaps a testament to Europe that its historic districts are far from static museum pieces. They are well-traversed, so its roadways are best if upgraded so that people don’t trip on every other step.

Solothurn, Switzerland is also home to genuine cobblestone, as are any number of tiny Swiss villages. The cobblestones date back to the 15th Century, and were usually taken from local riverbeds, hence each area’s stone roads are a stamp of the region’s individuality. I love the more recently added black paving stones, but they are the same anywhere you go in Europe or North America. I would have imagined they all come from Northern Ontario where black granite is in abundance, but more likely these streets are from China. Check out this supplier.

According to Wikipedia – a not necessarily reliable source of information by the way – some cobblestone roads have heritage-designation and are protected, but I could not get a single government office to verify that.

European cobblestone is not necessarily in danger. It can be purchased where else but the U.S. Here is one California, supplier who will happily ship it to you anywhere you like – maybe even back to Europe.

The grey 'path' along this Solothurn, Switzerland street is relatively new. If you look at the raw umber-toned stones in the courtyard and roadway, you will see they are of an older vintage The absence of uniformity in the street stone's sizes, colours and their rounded edges suggest they are much older and possibly drawn from nearby riverbeds (River Aar).

Here's a closer look. Given the flatness of this cobblestone surface, it appears that it could be a relaid "sett" from the 1800s, but it also could be the original locally drawn riverstones.

Chocolate Supremacy in Surprising Places

The best hot chocolate ever. If you know the recipe for Slovakian hot chocolate, please share!

German chocolate, Dutch chocolate, Swiss Chocolate and the top-of-the-world fabulous chocolate caramels served up at the little-heralded Chocolat shop at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia – these are few of my favorite things.

After swooning to the wonders of German chocolate, I was not expecting to find anything comparable in Europe, much less Slovakia, but it turns out I was wrong about that.

Seated in the snug Cukraren na Korze in Bratislava’s historic district, we devoured the best chocolate ever. I use the word “devoured,” but it could just as easily be said that we sipped on it. The chocolate was a hot chocolate beverage topped in genuine whipped cream, and while many have used the term “you could stand a spoon up in it,” only as a descriptive for richness, Cukraren’s hot chocolate really can support a spoon.

It raises the question: Is it hot chocolate? Or pudding? I don’t know. I don’t care. I just love it. I’ve been trying to figure out the recipe all this month, but so far it eludes me.

My father was Slovakian by birth, and he went to school in Bratislava, but of all the great food he put on the table, he never produced a cup of hot chocolate like this. I think he knew I had a weakness, and that bringing Bratislava’s hot chocolate too early into my life could lead to things, like not being to find a bathroom scale able to register my weight.

If you go to Bratislava, you’ll find Cukraren (with more accents and strange squiggles on its signage that my keyboard will allow) on Michalska, just a few doors down from St. Michael’s Gate and across from these ugly gargoyles. I don’t remember what the hot chocolate costs, but I didn’t particularly care after tasting it.



This little guy obviously wants more hot chocolate.


Bratislava the Beautiful

Despite rampant graffiti, vacant streets and widespread signs of urban rot, Bratislava is a European city and therefore, still rich in magnificent architecture. What makes it outstanding in some measure is that it is a living urban museum of its past. Like all European cities, attempts are ongoing to wash out signs of WWII and the economic trashing it produced, so if you want to see something before municipal planners hit the “delete” button, go to Bratislava. Slovakia may be in the economic basement, but there are signs of an upward swing. And if the money should present itself, it might start facelifting-away those markers of its sad history. Why not? The Berliners did it, eradicating all but a small strip of the Berlin Wall? Still, as an anti-revisionist, I hope they leave some scruffy bits.

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Bratislava, or as the Italians call it: Brateeslaaaaaahva. It sounds nicer that way.

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To look at travel brochures and economic reports, one would think Slovakia is on the upswing, and that would be true. There is nowhere else to go but up when buried in the economic basement of post-communist rule. The Soviets have been long-gone but their legacy lingers in the form of extremely ugly architecture and decaying urban districts. This does not mean Slovakia is not worth a visit: It is its very grittiness that make it a welcome contrast from Europe’s posh locales.

How to get more blog hits and a little on locked churches.

I have learned something about blogs and how to get more hits. Just in case you’ve ever researched this topic before, there are plenty of sites that give you tips on this, but none of them work. Just saying.

What does work, however, is posting a picture of an attractive young couple, as I did earlier this week. I had no idea it would have the impact that it did. My web-hits zooooomed upwards. But that is a cheap and tawdry trick, although many successes are built on such (People Magazine, ET Online to name a few).

So, today, we are back to our regular programming, which is photos of old buildings. Some of them aren’t even pretty. Here’s a start with a photo of a Catholic church in Bratislava, Slovakia. You may notice a glass sheen in front of it. That is because the church was locked. In fact, Bratislava is the first European city we have visited to have locked churches. A look at the streets told us why: The place looks impoverished, and so it’s  fair guess that vandalism might be an issue. We did sneak into a church, however, immediately after a small group celebrating an infant baptism was let out. Dave was a little antsy about doing that in a country where the last time they saw someone in my bloodline, they shot at him, but I say, what the heck. Just go for it. And no one shot at us.

This is what is outside.

This is what is inside.


We have been on the road, or more properly, on the European railway tracks for the most part of the last eight days. Maybe seven days. I don’t know. The concept of time has lost all meaning. Travel does that to a person.

It is very tough work. Tourists are all about seeing things, photographing things, experiencing things, buying things, doing things. It is an artificial existence, and so it is really hard to keep up for a long time.

No need to shovel snow on these 'streets,' but wouldn't it be fun if they froze over? It would be the greatest ice-skating in the world.

We should all feel sorry for those tourists who blithely book a six-month excursion. They have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. I can tell them: It will be a lot of pain and suffering, all while trying to look like they’re having the time of their lives so as to justify their investment of money and time.

But I ramble. The point of this blog is to show a little of what it is like to move to a place, as opposed to just visiting there. But for the last little bit, we have just been visiting. It is tougher than we remember. We’re almost grateful to get back to work.

There are no motor vehicles on Venice or Murano avenues, so everything gets hauled by humans. This cart is designed to take stairs easily. It works beautifully.

10 things we have learned so far:

  1. The best hot chocolate in the world can be had in Bratislava, Slovakia. This is a true fact.
  2. Vienna is much more fabulous than anyone could guess.
  3. Sorry to say, but Italian food tastes better in Canadian ‘Italian’ restaurants.
  4. The landscape between Milan and Venice looks a lot like Saskatchewan.
  5. Venice has a regrettable spewage smell to it. I say spewage, because I doubt they would admit to it being sewage. We may have seen a spewage outfall directly into a canal in the heart of the city.
  6. It is worth the extra money to book a full sleeping compartment with private bathroom and shower on Eurail lines in Switzerland, Austria and France.
  7. It is questionable whether it is worth it to pay extra money for first-class on Trenitalia (Italian Rail). Their seats are a little like Mussolini – hard to put up with.
  8. Italy’s train service Trenitalia also recently laid off their senior staff to hire a bunch of cheaper new staff, putting people out of work who have been with the railway for 20-25 years. Boo Trenitalia. A handful of middle-age guys are protesting this in front of the Venice train station. They have been there for 25 days. Trenitalia is a real name. Check it out by clicking here.
  9. If you want something done, get a Swiss, German or Austrian national to do it.
  10. Venice hotels are ridiculously expensive, but everything else is reasonable from food to souvenirs to boat taxis

    This Slovakian hot chocolate can permanently alter a person's mood to "upbeat."