The latest stop in my travels following the Irish team takes me to eastern Europe and the former Czechoslovakia. Land of dull weather, cobbled streets and strong beer.
For all the upheavals of the last 30 years, Bratislava remains unchanged. Not from the renaissance and baroque architecture of the old town, or the grim communist-era high rises that surround it. Hotel Kyjev, where I stayed was one such place. The rooms were brown and drab, truly it was like stepping back in the 70's. Still I was one of the lucky ones, many of the other Irish fans there complained of the rain (non-stop downpour the whole of Friday) leaking into their rooms and no hot water. There were also many whose accommodation was on a par with anywhere else in Europe. Luck of the draw, I guess.
Bratislava still feels like a second city rather that a capital. The public transport and infrastructure are creaking, and little concessions are made to non-Slovak speakers when it comes to announcements or signs. Luckily the local folk, once you make an effort to communicate, are friendly and willing to help. The main destination for visiting fans (other than the bars) was Bratislava Castle, set atop the Malé Karpaty hill through the steep cobbled back streets next to the Slovak parliament. From here great views of the city are to be found. On a clear day, you can even see as far as Hungary and Austria (needless to say, we could not). The Slovak National Museum is here, and it is also a popular wedding venue. There were at least two couples getting hitched there the Saturday morning we visited. The grooms had their photos taken draped in Irish scarves and hats. And when one of the brides was seen in the main square later that day, she was serenaded with chants of "Stand up for the bride in white".
The match that evening was at the home of Slovan Bratislava, a neat little stadium in the north of the city. The 6,000 of us who made it over were seated behind the left hand goal and saw Stephen Ireland put us 1-0 up inside 10 minutes. We should have gone on to dominate, but our fatal inability to kill off a game resurfaced and Klimpl snuck in a near-post header from a corner to equalise before half-time. A fabulous Kevin Doyle strike before the hour mark should have sealed the win, but the way the game went, it was only a matter of time before Slovakia would be level again. And sure enough, Marek Cech took advantage of an Irish defence all at sea and slotted home in the last minute. Once again, Ireland has thrown away a game they had in the bag. Wales's subsequent 5-2 win in Slovakia further underlined how Ireland had blown it.
Still, with 4 days to the next match, it was time to do a bit of touristing. Bratislava train station on Sunday afternoon had a swathe of Irish fans departing Slovakia. Some were heading straight for Prague, others were stopping off at Brno, halfway there, whereas our hardy band headed south on a 6 hour journey to Ceské Budejovice in the south of the Czech Republic. It is the administrative, cultural and economic capital of South Bohemia. The Premysl Otakar II Square in the centre of town claims to be the biggest in Europe, whether it's true on not, it sure is a sight to behold, surrounded by medieval and baroque architecture. It is also home to the Pivovar Budejovický Budvar brewery, makers of the famous Budvar beer, the real Budweiser rather than the pale American imitation. Didn't do the tour, but did dine at the restaurant. Food in this part of the world is solid hearty fare like goulashes and cutlets, all served in thick sauces and local dumplings, puddings like thick bread. The beer was great of course, though at 11% alcohol per bottle, moderation was advised, but unheeded...
Ceské Budejovice was our basecamp from which we went to explore Ceské Krumlov 40 minutes south by bus. It's amazing that Ceské Krumlov isn't better known. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this town is truly like a faiytale picture postcard, every corner you turn is a photo opportunity. The Krumlov Castle that overlooks the town is the second biggest after Prague and has bears roaming in the surrounding moat. Also here was the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, which had a Keith Haring exhibition on. It centred mainly on 'The Apocalypse', his collaboration with William S Burroughs. An unexpected bonus.
Prague is one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations and it's not hard to see why. The trouble is, it's too popular. Almost impossible to walk 20 metres in any direction in the old town without encountering a unberella wielding tour guide leading dozens of tourists around. Wenceslas Square is a big disappointment but Prague Castle, with the Presidential Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral, was much better. Well, once you get past the hordes anyway...
The history of Prague Castle Exhibition, though detailed, very pointedly skips over the communist era. So a visit to the Museum of Communism fills in the blanks, a fascinating but depressing exhibition of propaganda, secret police apparatus and recreations of the austere life under Czech communist rule. It says much about how times have changed that the museum is situated above a casino.
The match against the Czech Republic was at the Toyota Letna stadium, home of Sparta Prague, a compact ground with stands packed close to the pitch like Loftus Road. After the Slovakia game, we came in hope rather than expectation, and sure enough, the Czechs ran out easy 1-0 winners. Marek Jankulovski slotted home after 15 minutes and although Kevin Doyle hit the post, Ireland never really threatened. Especially after Richard Dunne's effort was cleared off the line and Stephen Hunt was wrongly sent off.
So there you have it. The two matches were the only minuses of what was otherwise a great trip around eastern Europe. You might ask if this is the case, why not just travel and skip the football altogether. Because if I did that, I would forego the tremendous rapport and cameraderie of a marvellous bunch of men and women, many of whom I never see but for Ireland trips, but through football, form a unique bond. I wouldn't miss this for anything.