Friday, April 04, 2008

Bratislava, here to represent Slovakia to the world

Bratislava is the only place in Slovakia most outsiders have heard of. It's the capital and it's the biggest city. And, it's conveniently located very close to the borders of Hungary and Austria, and even not so terribly far from the Czech Republic - perfect for travelers who are trying to hit up a lot of countries on a single trip. I have to admit, that is how we ended up there. We looked at a map, knew that we wanted to go to Budapest, added Wien, then saw that Bratislava wasn't all that far off the path between the two. Who doesn't want to hear some Slovakian language and eat some Slovakian food, and, well, say they've been to Slovakia at some point in their lifetime? We join a very, very huge crowd of people with the same idea.

(Let Beirut entertain you as you read about the city!)

We rolled in shortly before lunch at the main station. The station itself wasn't terribly modernized and we had some confusion figuring out how to get tickets for the bus into the town center. As it turned out, you can buy them from the tobacco stand near the bus stop. However, though everything we read recommended getting a bus to the center, it didn't really seem necessary. It was a very short ride down just one street! On the way back at the end of the day, we just walked.

Bratislava Mar 08

We wandered through Michael's Gate (see the photos by clicking above!) and conveniently came upon a restaurant recommended by the guide, Prašná Bašta, and decided to eat there. The food was really good and cheap and I would definitely recommend it, though every single customer was speaking English or German. I imagine the locals look at the tourist prices and laugh at how we are all getting ripped off, but without a language guide bigger than the one in our guidebook, we couldn't have eaten at a more local joint. Our main dishes were so good and the prices so decent that we both ordered dessert too, which was also great! (Some kind of crepe-like thing with chocolate and apricot. Get it!)

After lunch we walked around the old town and up to the castle. The weather was great and it was all quite picturesque. See the photo album for proof, and for some info on the sights we saw! The only downside of Bratislava is that the old town is the only tourist-friendly area - step outside and all the signs and menus are only in Slovakian. The old town was completely packed with tourists, mostly German-speaking (Austrians?), but also many, many Americans. The tourists seemed to all be of the variety who find themselves to be brilliant photographers (I'm making fun of myself here, too), so they are constantly in your way taking five minutes to get a perfect shot of their kid doing something adorable in a cute little adorable eastern European city, while their wives make comments to each other about how the local traditions (being conveniently sold at the tourist market) are so quaint, in the most condescending fashion possible. After a few hours we ran screaming from the tourist zone, and found that the streets were completely empty and of course we could not read a thing (though it was easier to make guesses than it had been in Hungary!). The difference between the two areas was quite extreme.

We wandered back toward the train station, which reminded me of an American train or bus station - dirty and full of vagrants. The bathroom had no toilet paper, no soap, no flush, no lock on the door. We ate at a nearby cafe, then caught the hourly train shuttle to Wien, which is only an hour away. (Hint: Bratislava could make a very nice day trip if you are spending some time in Wien!) By the way, the bathroom on that train isn't so great either. There were pubes all over the seat and when I flushed the toilet, the sink ran (I tried not to ponder this too much). I think the worst thing about traveling is always worrying about where your next tolerable bathroom experience will occur! (Or dehydrating yourself to avoid finding out!)


  1. I had to go to Bratislava for work in February, 2005 - definitely low season- or maybe the tourists stayed away because the Bush - Putin summit was on. I loved the old town - quiet coffe shops and bars where you can actually relax and read if you have the time.

    My "highlight" of the trip was jamming an earplug too far in and having to go to the city hospital. It was like going back in time 60 years: my emergency room nurse wrote up the intake report on a typewriter, not a computer or even a simple LED display in sight, every instrument was covered in enamel, the walls and floors in tile, the doctor even had one of those old-fashioned headbands and circular concave mirror for focusing the light better. They worked in the most decrepit conditions but gave me excellent care.

    One more thing I liked about Bratislava: the prettiest girls I'd seen in ages. They even mention this in the tourist brochures: don't be surprised if you seem to be seeing fashion models walking around. They're everywhere!

  2. 10 years ago (back in '98), the countryside in Slovakia made you wonder if you suddenly stepped back 40, 50 years when entering the country, even when coming in from the Czech republic.

    There's a transit highway leading east from Bratislava (towards Ukraine and Eastern Hungary). To the left and right nothing but fields, for miles. Farmers with oxen pulling their plows, people on horsecarts, with maybe a rare 50s-style truck here and there.

  3. Ian: Wow, that sounds really interesting to see (though perhaps not in the role of patient). I worked at a hospital in the US and would love to see the equivalent facilities in various countries.

    Kato: I would love to see the countryside - unfortunately it requires either car rental, or lots of time to bike or train it. I heard Slovakia is quite nice for biking! It would be nice to see a corner of Europe that hasn't been saturated by all the products of modern globalization yet...if there still is one.


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