Bratislava – small but perfectly formed

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.

Kapitulska street – central but still very quiet
The Primate’s Palace and the Old Town Hall

Sark – the simple life

It’s no surprise that, as a long-time cycling campaigner, my favourite of the Channel islands is Sark, where the only motor vehicles are a few tractors, but there’s more to it than that. People who choose to live on Sark (and almost everyone does make a positive choice, given the multitude of opportunities to leave the island, from school onwards) are all committed to its relaxed lifestyle where everyone has time to talk (often in the middle of the road) and to pursue slightly offbeat interests – I came across enthusiasts for astronomy (the island became Europe’s first Dark Sky Community, in 2011), sustainable agriculture, and sloe vodka and gin. Happily, someone has also set up a microbrewery.

Archeology is another local enthusiasm – it’s often said that Sark was uninhabited until Helier de Carteret arrived from Jersey to settle here in 1565, but it’s now clear, thanks to the work of Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe (the great expert on the prehistoric Atlantic world and the Celts) and fellow Oxford archeologists who have been working here for 15 years, that Neolithic farmers were here by 5,000 BC. The first settlers would have been hunter-gatherers but farming would have been introduced by about 4000BC, and sheep were raised from around 1500BC. The finds remain on the island and can be seen in the Heritage Room (open on weekdays from 11.00 to 13.00), next to the Sark Visitor Centre.

La Coupée, Sark

The painter and writer Mervyn Peake lived here for a couple of years from 1933 and likewise from 1946, pretty much exemplifying the island lifestyle. As a young artist in the 1930s he was known for painting naked (or wearing just a sombrero) on the cliffs; when he returned after the war he had a young family and rented the house previously occupied by the commanding officer of the German occupation force. The broadcaster Kate Humble is someone else who was partly formed by childhood summers on Sark.

It seems to work, as the island’s permanent population is a self-sustaining 500 to 600, with just enough incomers to replace those leaving for study and work elsewhere. It’s the world’s newest democracy (subject to correction), with the seigneur’s feudal powers replaced in 2008 by a semi-democratic system. The seigneur still owns the island (holding it as a fief from the Crown), but Christopher Beaumont, who inherited the job from his father in 2016, is a modern-minded chap (previously an officer in the Royal Engineers) who is restoring his house, the Seigneurie, and backing other projects for sustainable development of the island. However this was apparently not democratic enough for the twin Barclay brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph and various lucrative property interests in London, who own the island of Brecqhou, just off Sark, and built themselves a château where I picture them stroking white cats while chuckling at their dastardly plans for world domination. They tried growing grapes for wine, which failed as the soil is too acidic, and proposed a funicular from the harbour and other ‘improvements’ which weren’t really wanted; then when their candidates were not elected in the new democratic elections they closed both their hotels on Sark in pique, instantly reducing visitor numbers by about 40%. However, the two other hotels on Sark, Stocks and La Sablonnerie, are both superb, and there are some B&Bs and self-catering options too. The French ferry company Manche-Îles, which links Sark with Jersey and the French mainland, also had engine trouble on one of its boats for much of 2018, providing a further hit to the economy.


Of the other islands, Herm is a little like Sark, with an even smaller population (just 60-65) and no cars, but it’s really just a hotel business with a small island attached, more like Tresco in the Scillies. Like the Île de Bréhat in Brittany and Padstow in Cornwall, both of which I visit most years with hiking groups, the ferries have different landing spots depending on the state of the tide. It was settled in Neolithic times, by Saints Tugual and Magloire in the 560s, and again by Norman monks in the tenth century. Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney all have their own charms but they’re much bigger and more populous, and maybe I’ll write about them separately some time.