It is difficult to not feel disappointed by Bratislava after visiting places like Berlin, Dresden and Prague. Before learning about the city and its history, it is easy to make unfair judgements about such a place twisted and gnarled by the influence of communism. Tour guides and travel blogs too, were rather pessimistic about visiting Bratislava, saying that even two days in the city may be excessive for some travellers. We fell into this trap of predisposition and didn’t have the best first impressions, but the place grew on us, slowly but surely, because we gave it a chance.
We were received in Slovakia’s capital by bright sunny skies and were taken, by tram, to our Airbnb which was quite close to the riverfront. On the way there we noticed that city seemed largely unremarkable: soporific structures aligning bland streets that did not inspire any of the awe usually associated with the appreciation of a European city. Even on a wonderful day such as it was, there was a saturnine lethargy about the place as we moved past, that dampened our moods a bit. We were able to check ourselves though, because the area in Dresden where we lived engaged in the same subterfuge. Perhaps there was more to Bratislava than was our tram route was showing us.
Our stop was by a small park with a fountain at its centre. Despite our finding out the its name in the coming days, we continued to call it ‘wee garden’, not because we were trying to be Scottish but because, for some odd reason, there was always some pants-less child peeing in the bushes while we walked past. An odd brand of European-ness was palpable here, though we took it all in as a matter hilarious circumstance.
Speaking of urine, our room in the Airbnb smelt faintly like the stale kind. Though our lodgings looked neat and clean, with nice sheets and modern furniture, we were always hit in the face with the stench when entering the room. It was not coming from outside that was for sure, and keeping the window open did not help, but fortunately, or unfortunately, it didn’t take long for us to get used to it. This Airbnb was a also the start of a continuing trend where we had to take showers in a bath tub without a curtain. Another occurrence we had to shrug off as mildly inconvenient.
The city of Bratislava has a relatively small historical centre, so it wasn’t difficult to canvas our walking tour attractions the day before. A castle on a hill, a large cathedral and a bunch of pretty squares were all found within minutes of each other. There were also a lot of restaurants around, the kind that do not commend themselves to those even slightly aware of tourist traps, each competing with each other for the title of most authentic Slovak menu. Since we had prepared to eat at certain in places in advance, and decided to go to one at the end of our first walking tour, we were not to be taken in by even the most persuasive front staff.
The tours we signed up for were informative and relatively easy going. The one in the morning, though admittedly mediocre due to our uninteresting tour guide, took us through the most popular and historical landmarks of the city giving us what seemed like a regurgitated version of some tourist pamphlet. It was surprising just how many of metal statues were considered worth points of interest. One in particular, of a man sticking his and arms out of a manhole, had a hoard of tour groups taking pictures of it. Ours expected the same of us, and it took all of my self-control not to visibly scoff.
Our evening tour was significantly better. Initially, we did not think it would take place because of the sudden torrent of rain that did not want to stop for an hour or so. A few of us huddled under a tree, near our meet point, getting to know each other while we waited. A couple from Dusseldorf who lived in Berlin, whose names I cannot recall for the life of me, happened to be following the exact same route that we were, albeit in the opposite direction. We both shared stories of our travels so far, growing closer and familiar in the process. By the time our guide arrived, a mere ten minutes late, we were all a close-knit group. She was soaked in rain but completely oblivious to it, apologising fervently because someone had locked her material and sign in a bike shed. Hmm…a likely story, but we let her off the hook because she seemed refreshingly bubbly and keen, and because we had not really noticed the time fly by.
Maria, a history student studying in Austria but working at home during the summer, took us through a thorough and energetic introduction to communist Bratislava. She took us through to clandestine meeting rooms behind bars, squares where speeches were given to thousands of people, and to the castle on the hill that over looked the city. She told us about how people lived, how even parents and grandparents differ from each other and herself politically, and effect such rifts have on the local culture. Her personal affectations and recounting of experience was what set her in evident contrast to the guide we had that morning. She was intelligent and engaged us all in cheerful debates that made us more in involved in our own understanding of the places we were visiting and the stories we were told. I think Maddy would agree with me when I say that she probably saved Bratislava for us, with all her recommendations and ideas about how we should spend our time.
Our exhaustion hit us as soon as we said goodbye to our friends and headed back towards the Old town for something to eat. From the Radio building where we ended our tour, it was a longer walk than expected, which added to the intensity of our grumpiness since the restaurant we had decided to check-out was somewhere on the way to Bratislava Castle. Maddy’s knees still had not recovered from Prague, so getting up the steep steps, up some narrow allies, to the little restaurant tucked inconspicuously on a dimly lit street was very difficult.
We walked into what looked like a small ancient bar, and were lead through some more doors and into an extremely posh looking restaurant: dark wood tables laid with pristine silverware, napkins rolled into steel holders and iron framed chairs that look like museum artifacts. The brick walled low ceilinged interior, with mounted old wheels, and rustic metalworks not only created a deliberately medieval ambiance, but also hinted towards a menu that was perhaps beyond our means. Maddy was feeling the same thing, and as we awkwardly opened up the menu, and our fears were confirmed, we had to think about what best to do next.
Two awkward choices lay before us: the first was to have a small meal that was probably worth a large one somewhere else and eat cheap for the rest our time in Bratislava, and the second was to walk out, endure our tiredness for a little more and enjoy a cheaper meal somewhere else. From what we could tell from the other tables the food looked incredible, but with so many weeks left on our trip and not knowing exactly what we were in for, we could not justify spending too much. We were also ravenously hungry, so it did not make sense to stay and have a meal that did not fill us up.
Deciding to leave and having to embarrassingly admit to the waitress who was coming to take our order, hurt my pride a bit. To her credit, her look of gracious understanding helped the situation.
We ended up eating at a bar in the city centre opposite an Irish pub; they were one of the only few still open for food at the time. With ice-hockey blaring indoors and the raucous laughter of someone’s stag-do going on at the pub, Maddy and I were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nonetheless, it was not a situation that some cold beer and a humble Slovak meal could not assuage. The traditional garlic soup in a bread bowl, bone-in duck confit with braised red cabbage joined by folded, slightly greasy pancakes, and goats cheese gnocchi topped with crisp panchetta that was all the noise in Bratislava for tourists, gave us just the warm caress we needed for an absolute bargain. It wasn’t the greatest meal in the world by any means, but our bellies were more than grateful for it.
(apologies for the clickbait title)