It was a joy to spend the best part of two weeks in Bratislava, updating the Bradt City Guide – I was first here in 1986, and I vaguely remember that the old town was small but perfectly formed and I loved it. Then in the ‘90s I stopped occasionally when I was travelling to Romania by train – back in the days when publishers could afford to humour me rather than just making me buy the cheapest flight (this was before the days of really cheap airlines, of course). Anyway, the last time I’d been here was in 2003, since when it has seen some changes, but it’s still wonderful. For one thing, it’s exactly the right size – you can walk across the old town in ten minutes, but it’s packed with historic buildings, museums and galleries, not to mention fine cafés, pubs and restaurants.
I’m sure that I had to speak German (and a few Slovak words) when I was here before, but now it’s so easy, everyone under say 30, including almost all bar and restaurant staff, speaks English. In fact I can understand a lot of the signs and notices here, as so many words are common to other Slav languages (above all ‘pivo’ or beer).
Traditionally this end of Slovakia was known for wine-making, and they also drank fairly standard Czech-style Pilsner beers (when I was in the Tatra mountains in the ‘90s we drank Zlaty Bazant or Golden Pheasant – perfectly refreshing, and it was nice to have one now just for old times’ sake) – but now they’ve really branched out, with microbreweries producing wheatbeers, porters, stouts and IPAs. Thankfully, because they already had some knowledge of beer, they didn’t rush into the very heavily hopped American IPAs but make very pleasant balanced pints. I also went out of the city to the wine-making villages of Pezinok and Modra where they mainly grow standard German grape varieties (although new Slovak strains have also been developed) – the Riesling is drier than the German equivalent, I think, but they seem to prefer their reds semi-sweet, in the Russian style – this was what everyone had to drink in Georgia until they revolutionised their wine industry. I dare say I’ll take a bottle or two home.
Also on the drinks front, they’re crazy for coffee, which I am not – horrible bitter stuff. But there are lovely cafés, some in the Kaffee und Küchen tradition and some more modern, including co-working places and art spaces. I noticed oddities such as the selfiecchino and the rooiboos cappuccino – I leave you to decide if they’re worth sampling. But the hot chocolate is amazing – real stand-your-spoon-up stuff.
Of course Slovak food is traditionally heavy on the meat (and dumplings), and there’s no shortage of Original Slovak Restaurants on the couple of streets of the old town where the stag parties congregate – but there’s now also a very strong alternative food culture, pushing a great variety of cuisines and stressing local and seasonal produce. I was thrilled to discover the new Saturday market at the Stará Tržnica or Old Market, with lots of happy people buying all kinds of food products as well as crafty stuff; they also have a Street Food Park there once a month from Tuesday to Friday, where I picked up a falafel wrap for lunch – ok, it was staffed by just about the only Slovaks I saw with hipster beards and tattoos but still, it was great. It’s also a very vegetarian-friendly city now, and it was over a week before I resorted to my first pizza (and that wasn’t because I’d run out of other options). Open sandwiches are a trend at the moment, working very well with lovely Slovak cream cheese (Urban Bistro do a great one), and I also enjoyed Krumpla (on Obchodna, which is a very good street to look for food from around the world, especially Asia), which is reinventing the humble jacket potato – served with a swirl of balsamic by cool staff and costing double what you’d expect for a basic JP.
I don’t know whether it’s a legacy of Habsburg times or of communism, but the food industry is very preoccupied with weights and measures, telling you exactly what weight each dish on the menu is, and also listing all possible allergens; every shop, café and restaurant has to display its opening hours on the front door, it seems, which certainly makes a guidebook writer’s job easier! Another thing to be grateful for if visually impaired is the requirement for markers (a black triangle on a yellow circle) on steps.
At street level it feels like most European cities – there are quite a lot of cars but not a lot of congestion, as plenty of people use public transport (trams, buses and trolley-buses) and a reasonable number now cycle – hardly at Dutch/Danish levels, but it’s catching on. There’s a new bike-sharing system (Slovnaft Bajk) which seems fairly popular even though they haven’t at all got the knack yet of moving bikes around to have them where they’re needed (eg at the station in the morning when the commuters arrive). The Stary Most or Old Bridge, Bratislava’s first fixed bridge across the Danube (as opposed to pontoons; opened in 1891) was more or less derelict until the EU paid for it to be rebuilt, reopening in 2016 – it now carries only trams, cycles and pedestrians, and of course reminded me of the Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Oregon, which opened in 2015 – there was quite a fuss at the time about building a US$135 million bridge that was specifically not for cars or trucks. For some reason the trams only go a couple of stops beyond the river and then stop, not very close to connecting buses.
Once upon a time those trams rattled along all the way from Vienna to Bratislava (about 55km), and bourgeois Frauen used to come here just for Kaffee und Kuchen at places like Cafe Mayer, which is still there on Old Town Square. This reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor who of course did the same journey on foot (actually he got a lift to the edge of Vienna, but we won’t begrudge him that), stopping at the Roman ruins of Carnuntum – I thought of getting a bus there from Bratislava and walking back across the border, but alas the site is closed in winter. Likewise the Roman site of Gerulata, just south of Bratislava, although I did get a photo through the fence. I did manage to walk to Austria via the Bridge of Freedom, a new international cycle bridge across the Morava (March) river not far north of the famous castle of Devín.
So all kinds of things have changed for the better – but the odd exhibition on ethnography, and the paintings of Jan Hála and the like, reminded me that I caught the very end of traditional folk culture in the region – above all in Maramureș and other parts of Transylvania, but also in the hillier parts of Slovakia. That’s pretty much gone now, but I do feel incredibly privileged to have seen as much as I did – and to have shared in people’s lives, even if only to a tiny extent. Of course, if you go further east, there are still people living traditional lifestyles, such as the transhumance from Tusheti in Georgia that I mentioned here.
Sandwiched between Hungary and Poland, Slovakia has been infected by the same kind of nasty populist politics, but that comes mainly from the rural areas, whereas as far as I can see Bratislava remains a civilised place. Which is not to say that the Roma are particularly well treated here, but it’s better than in the east of the country.
Most of the travellers I met in the hostels were complaining about the blogs that urged them to rush between Berlin and Budapest via Prague and Vienna, saying that Bratislava was dull, but you won’t find any of that big-cities-only nonsense here (although I admit I have gone into Berlin’s museums and galleries in some depth) – Bratislava is exactly the kind of place people should be stopping in to understand the new Europe. But it’s even better to get to smaller places towards the mountains – I had great views of the High Tatras, thick with snow (serious nostalgia!) from the train from Bratislava and Trnava to Kosice, but I didn’t have time to stop – but I will post soon on those two towns.