How Bratislava Surprised Me

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?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. That’s a really good description of Bratislava. Last year, one of the tours I guided stopped in Bratislava for two nights and I remember at my training, thinking “what the hell are we going to do in Bratislava for two nights?!” It’s not like it’s a horrible city, I just find it… boring. If it wasn’t capital of a country that most of us don’t visit anyway I don’t think I’d be as harsh on it, I think. It’s worth it as a day trip from Vienna but yes I did struggle trying to entertain a tour group there for two nights! (When I ran out of things to do, I ended up taking them wine tasting in a little town an hour away :P)
    Caitlyn recently posted..A bone to pick with the IOCMy Profile

    • Well said. I would have liked to stay a few more hours, but perhaps not overnight. Seems like the country offers a lot more cool towns and adventure sports – next time!

  2. Hi there,
    I come from Slovakia and I need to admit Bratislava is not my favourite city. Is a bit sad that most travellers go there, see this weird mixture of concrete and stone and then they spread the voice how boring the city is :) Actually, if you visit Devin or Slavin, you might have better impressions :)
    If you are again in Slovakia, try another regions, especially middle and east, with beautiful hills, mountains or small cozy towns like Kosice, Presov, Bardejov, Trencin.
    And also one more very important note: Slovakia was never part of USSR, just to make it clear :)
    http://www.wisegeek.org/which-countries-were-part-of-the-soviet-union.htm
    Ivana recently posted..Laos: the Good and the Bad of a (Not So) Forgotten CountryMy Profile

    • I think it’s really easy to dislike capital cities and slander them up – I have been very vocal about not liking Barcelona and feeling iffy about London, too, despite multiple trips. When travelers go and see many different places, it’s so easy to compare. In the end, going to Slovakia with not many expectations made a big difference. I’d be interested in seeing different regions or taking a road trip, like I’ve done in other young countries.

      And thanks for the clarification – turns out I had their history twisted! Thanks for commenting, Ivana.

  3. I’ve always thought it’d be an interesting place to visit and a much more low-key stop than its bigger brother in the Czech.

    I’d really like to check it out when we head back over to the continent this summer. Great post, Cat!
    Ryan from Jets Like Taxis recently posted..Day Trip: A Visit to Tulum, MexicoMy Profile

    • I’m definitely interested in seeing more of the country besides Bratislava. Like Romania, I went with less-than-stellar reviews of the place, but ended up really enjoying it.

  4. Cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer sounds like a good enough reason to me. :)
    Penny Sadler recently posted..The Romance of IstanbulMy Profile

  5. I must say, personally I love Bratislava, nothing like what Eurotrip suggested, its a refreshing change and a beautiful small town feel. I loved all the quirky statues that were hidding, to be found.
    rebecca recently posted..Chapter 79 – A valentines special – Dating A Travel GirlMy Profile

    • I had no idea Bratislava had such an underground fan club! I do agree – it’s about the charm and the small town feeling.

  6. Bratislava isn’t on my travel radar….but it does have a castle, something I find really enticing. I may have to add it to my future destinations list :-)
    Hmmm. Getting rapped on the knuckles for minor infractions is a sign of communism. Who knew…I thought it was normal in catholic school in the US.
    Gayla recently posted..Things to do in Valencia – Tour the Bullfighting Ring and MuseumMy Profile

  7. I really enjoyed Bratislava too (here‘s my write-up from my visit). It’s a great stop if you’re already in the area, and I’ve heard the more rural parts of Slovakia are absolutely stunning. I’d really love to go back to Central/Eastern Europe for a while, rent a car, and just drive around visiting small towns. So charming.
    Kirstie recently posted..Celebrating Australia: ‘Straya Day and the Lunar New YearMy Profile

  8. This was great to read because I’ll be heading to Bratislava for Semana Santa! Starting in Budapest, heading to Kosice, Bratislava and then flying out of Vienna. Did you take a boat along the Danube? I think it might be a fun way to connect to Vienna :)
    Kate recently posted..You are Not a Prisoner: Say NO to Candy Crush!!My Profile

    • I did the opposite trip, more or less, from Passau, Germany. We did take a boat down the Danube since we were on a Viking cruise. I’d imagine there are boats between the two, but check with the Viennese tourism department – the page for Bratislava doesn’t have much!

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