Parachuting down onto the platform of Bratislava train station I entered a totally different world from Vienna. I’d only been on the train an hour, but I’d experienced my first border crossing by rail – who said I don’t have exciting holiday tales – from the top deck of the train (another first) and entered a different world.
The soviet-era utilitarian train station was just the first glimpse of this city’s communist past – outside the historic centre the dull grey concrete of post-war tower blocks line many streets. But alongside these it’s plain to see that Bratislava is modernising at quite an astonishing pace. Tram lines are being relayed, a large modern glass/steel concert hall has been built and they’re getting in to Tesco in quite a big way (although not quite as big a way as they are into advertising Seal’s November gig in the city – who knew he was still around?).
I hadn’t originally intended on extending my trip to include Bratislava, but as you can’t fly directly from Vienna to Edinburgh I thought I’d see an extra city and fly direct from there (I half expected Ryanair to call it ‘Vienna East’). It was only after I’d sorted it all out (with many simple questions, like do they use the Euro? – they do – and other things I probably should have known) that I started to wonder if an afternoon and evening in a city was really enough. I needn’t have worried, the centre of Bratislava is not exactly what you would call large. I dropped my bags off about one and by half five I’d explored most of the main sights. And sat down for a relaxing coffee (sadly without cake).
If the outskirts were mainly grey soviet concrete, then the medieval centre looks as though it could easily be a suburb of Paris or Vienna. Its narrow, windy cobbled streets are a labyrinth, hemmed in by white or pale yellow buildings (virtually all firmly standing, unlike Moscow). It’s quite easy to get lost – especially with the world’s worst map, given to me by the hostel as though it was god’s gift to humanity – in this maze, but thankfully the centre is so compact that just as you are starting to wonder if you are lost you come out onto a square or courtyard that you recognise.
Just like Vienna, this city has some wonderfully ornate old buildings. Be it one of the many (many many many) churches scattered throughout the city, or buildings important to the people – like the town hall or the Slovak national theatre – they have all been beautifully restored (Bratislava suffered massive amounts of bombing during world war II). Clearly you’d never be out of work here if you were a painter or in the restoration business. The biggest of these buildings sits on top of the steep little hill on the banks of the Danube – the castle, Bratislavský hrad.
It was once, apparently, a castle in the traditional sense, but during the rein of Maria Theresa (one of the Hapsburgs from Austria) she decided to remodel it into a renaissance/baroque palace. It was destroyed by bombings and fires during the first half of the 20th century, and since 1953 it has been in a restoration limbo. Since Slovakia’s independence in 1992, however, lots of work has been done and the main block was officially reopened in 2010.
From its lofty position you get a great view out across the city. It’s like looking through an ice core where you see each of the different stages of the city through time laid out before you. Immediately below the castle is the town centre, with its many spires and history stretching back through the centuries; beyond this is the concrete utilitarian years of Moscow rule and sitting out at the back are a few modern skyscrapers, topped by the names of banks which bring the city very much into the present. Cutting through all of this, the waters of the Danube permeate every one of these eras, all of which watched over by the imperious eye of the castle.
Sitting on the bank of the river the city was lit up by a fire-y sunset and I had a moment of peace to reflect on a very bizarre holiday. I’d been shouted at by angry Russian policeman, seen a preserved figure from history in a creepy mausoleum (I’m still not convinced it was real), found myself ushered through diplomatic customs, eaten almost my own bodyweight in cake, drunk a rather larger amount of beer and Sturm, watched an opera in a language I don’t understand and visited a city I’d never really considered going to.
Sure, I could have gone to Greece or perhaps Egypt and chilled out on the beach for a week, and sure that would have probably been more relaxing, but I’ve ‘experienced’ history and have lived more than the few select stories I’ve shared here – isn’t that really what going away is all about? Well, for me it is. Now, where is my cake?