There was nervous anticipation on the boat.
“And tomorrow,” Marek said shrilly, “we tour the greatest country in the world, my home of Slovakia!”
I didn’t share his enthusiasm, though have always thought that their flag is pretty sweet. For an itinerary packed with so many European highlights, Slovakia seemed like a necessary stopover because we didn’t have any onboard entertainment (save Marek dressed as Mozart the night we left Salzburg). All of the opportunities I had had in the past to visit Slovakia’s capital city had been met with the same response: “Skip it, there’s nothing to see there.”
And then, of course, there’s the city’s shining portrayal in the film Eurotrip.
So I wrote Slovakia off altogether until it was part of our Viking Cruise plan; a morning in Bratislava. This also meant my 31st country, one I’d merely passed through on an overnight bus between Budapest and Prague in the past and where I laid groggy eyes on the castle from the gas station.
We piled into buses at the small Danube port. Remnants of Communism remain, but the city proved to be a strange juxtaposition of Maria Theresa’s opulence and Czech repression with a few modern structures thrown in for good measure.
Climbing into the hills behind the castle, we passed the various embassies, monuments to liberation and elegant states houses, plus TV towers, grungy hotels and decrepit houses. Squat housing developments and factories lay just across the Danube towards Vienna. Our guide pointed it all out, joking about how Communism meant that she grew up getting her knuckles rapped at school for having a shoelace untied, but her kids now graffiti the school without punishment.
Calling the castle an “overturned castle,” she confessed that it was, amidst crumbling buildings and Soviet architecture, quite possibly the biggest eyesore in the city. Maybe because it was glistening white and unspoiled by war and oppressive regimes, but I had to agree (and then took my obligatory picture).
Crossing into the historic, traffic-free center of town through Michael’s Gate, the streets were lined with small shops and cafes. Cannonball holes made for interesting stories about tax payers who purposely mutilated their own homes to get out of fees for a few years, even when the trajectory made no sense. Our guide was quick to make fun of oppressors who had tried to take control of the landlocked territory.
Pressburg’s former glory was reduced to ruins quickly during the last century, but it seems that the iron-clad spirit of the Slovaks have given the city a sort of revival; it was no wonder that every Slovakian staff member on board or ship was colorful and good-natured. The country has seen its share of battles, changing of rulers and didn’t gain independence until 1993. Amidst the cannonball-laden buildings, there are McDonald’s, boutiques and whimsical statues.
Once we’d tipped the guide, we set Nancy loose in the city to do some shopping, and we joined a family from Maine in one of the city’s most famous chocolate shops. In a city where coffee culture is king, we opted for beers – and the Slovak beer, Zlaty Bažant, was awesome. Bratislava is rumored to have great nightlife, as evident by the slew of bars on Sedlárska Street.
While not a dazzling European capital, Bratislava was an easy-going break between regal Vienna and Budapest that gave us a chance to drink in a bit of small-city Europe. It was a place where I, for the first time on a trip that had us in four countries and eight cities, didn’t need to blindly follow a tour guide and tick things off my list.
Between the coffee culture and architecture, I could have spent the entire day popping in and out of locales for a drink or snack. It seemed to blend a tragic past with a hopeful future and a fun-loving, self-deprecating present.
Would it be it worth an entire trip? Perhaps, but as just an hour’s drive from Vienna, it’s definitely recommended for a quick visit (if even just for its cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer).
Have you been to Slovakia or Bratislava? What did you like (or not) about the city?