With a delayed flight out of London, my Slovakian adventure looked to be morphing into misadventure. I was playing a risky game with the original booking: the Ryanair flight was set to arrive in Bratislava at ten forty-five pm and the last scheduled bus departure to the city was eleven-thirty. Qualms aside, I was confident it wouldn’t end in tears, or serious injury. My confidence rapidly dissipated as I found myself sprinting after the last scheduled bus down the street outside Bratislava airport, yelling wearily at it to, “Stop, please!”
All I could see were Slovakian eyes staring in astonishment from the rear window.
My inexpensive long weekend away had just been bumped into the pricey category. At twenty euros for a fifteen-minute taxi ride, my fine dining prospects were becoming less feasible. To pour salt into my open wound, the taxi I’d taken - while on the highway - overtook the bus I had deliriously chased minutes earlier. As we accelerated, I descended into the seat, then hit the floor when we met again at a set of traffic lights; direct contact with the eyes peering at me from above was avoided. I eventually arrived safely at the pre-booked hostel, my travel wallet significantly lighter than anticipated.
The Capital: Bratislava
Bratislava, Slovakia’s largest city, has been the capital for thirty-nine years. It’s where the Carpathian Mountains end and the divide between Europe’s east and west is almost tangible. Although not as swanky as its famous neighbours - like Vienna, Bratislava is nonetheless impressive. Surrounded by forest and vineyards, moving only a short distance from the city centre breathes life into weary city-souls. Adding a textural layer of beauty to Bratislava is the Danube, the famous European river that weaves its way through the city, destination: Vienna to the west and Budapest to the south.
Exploration on Foot
Filled with anticipation at the thought of meeting a long-standing friend, I rose early to prepare my weary body for a day replete with authentic Slovakian experiences. I was elated to see Vicki outside the hostel at eight, standing gaily with open arms and that familiar solar smile. Although not Slovakian, her time spent in country had given her a unique insight into cultural and traditional norms. With an Austrian partner and limited work prospects, she’d had time to forge new relationships, friends she’d arranged for us to meet throughout the day.
commenced at a city centre food market, its stalls overflowing with fresh
produce delivered from the nearby countryside.
The smell of fresh fruit caught my attention, a delicious aroma filling
my nostrils with delight as it wafted across the crisp morning air. After engaging in cordial conversation with
Vicki’s “Regulars,” we took advantage of the cloudless sky and meandered
through the antediluvian cobblestone streets: a trove filled with the treasure
of Europe’s intriguing East.
Much of our time was spent musing over fifteenth century structures. The distinct Gothic and Baroque architectural styles seen within the historic heart exist due to its idyllic geographical positioning: fourteenth and fifteenth century artisans and architects, on their way to the Orient, passed through the city via the Danube Road bringing with them ideals and influences from flourishing Western European nations.
Once finished deriving inspiration from the quintessentially European architecture, I moved on to the absorption of the ambiance created by amiable locals traipsing by. Although its historic heart is not as monstrous as bustling metropoles such as Rome and Paris, the charm emitted by its local inhabitants is no less enticing. Catching a grin from passersby was simple: it required only the initiation of a smile, and an occasional small nod.
Filled with Pleasure to Satiety
As we walked, Vicki played tour guide, and did remarkably well despite a lack of Slovakian citizenship and time spent living in the city. She’d embraced life in Bratislava, and wore it well. Before ascension of the steps leading to Bratislava Castle, our niggling stomachs forced us to discuss culinary options. As midday was a tick away and smells began emerging from nearby restaurants, we agreed lunch was next on the agenda.
Before leaving London, I had read about traditional Slovakian food and, despite a certain intolerance to dairy, decided I had to try a certain famous dish: bryndzové halušky. Apparently - according to anecdotal advice from fellow travelers - the gnocchi are handmade daily, and are drowned in a white sauce made from sheep’s cheese. To add insult to delicious fatty internal injury, the killer dish is topped with freshly fried, crispy diced bacon. We found a restaurant with an al fresco setting, facing an old church. While reminiscing about old work times, the dishes we’d ordered arrived. My eyes protruded almost out of their sockets in sheer delight. As each forkful entered my mouth, I feared the result, but was overcome by delight at the explosion of flavour in my mouth. It was food-porn at its greatest.
Pushed past satiety, the seat outside the castle in the sun - not the many steps leading to its comfort – beckoned. We thus wobbled, weighed down by our respective food comas, towards the prominent features of the castle’s structure. As we approached the top of the zigzagging staircase, my breath was further taken away by the unobstructed and distant views of the old and newer city sections.
Looking across the mighty Danube painted a gloomy picture of the Soviet era: non-descript tower blocks resided side-by-side in soldier-like uniformity, not a glimmer of light emerging from their grey concrete walls. Looking to the left took our eyes back to the brilliance of Western European influence and design. The rectangular castle, located prominently behind us, emitted a vibe of solidarity. Sitting atop the Little Carpathians, it has been a significant part of the city’s history and – on a good day – provides distant views to Hungary and Austria.
Time to Reminisce and Learn
After several years of little contact, Vicki and I passed more time - sitting in the sun - further reminiscing and deliberating plans for our respective futures. I discussed how I’d ended up living back in the United Kingdom, and she spoke about the potential of moving to Austria – a country synonymous with my maternal cultural heritage. On our way to meet her friends in the park, she insisted on a side-stop at one of her favourite cafes to devour locally baked goods: a mandatory itinerary inclusion on every European journey.
For the next hour, before my train to Linz, we sat under the shade of a luscious tree in a central park where I got to know Vicki’s circle of Slovakian friends. All women – and one child - from different Slovakian backgrounds, they meet regularly to learn about each other and build meaningful friendships. Being a part of their circle, albeit momentarily, was insightful. It highlighted a point of interest: most people, regardless of their respective backgrounds, seek to derive comfort from others and share in moments of happiness.
Visiting Bratislava and spending time with an old friend reminded me never to forget the past. Although new horizons may seem awash with adventure and opportunity, reminding ourselves of milestones from the past – particularly those that have pushed us forward – is important in learning and growing. Sentimentality aside, Bratislava is a beautiful divide between east and west. Although small, it is home to some charming features guaranteed to capture your interest.
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The author stayed at Hostel Possonium in Bratislava.
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