Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Bratislava, Slovakia

Posted on November 23rd, 2005

When some of that Old Europe character fades, just paint it back on!

Several travelers had warned me that Bratislava was not exactly a thrilling destination. Indeed, it sounded like Duluth with a castle. The truth is, I did my best to find an alternate destination for my introduction to Slovakia, prior to my departure from Krakow, but as I had chosen the morning after drinking myself stupid with cheap wine to take on this task, it transpired that I couldn’t marshal the short term memory or reading comprehension skills necessary to find a suitable alternative. After three torturous hours of rereading the same six pages in my guidebook no less than 12 times, I threw up my arms and surrendered. And so it was that I found myself arriving in Not Exactly Thrilling Bratislava at 10:00PM on a cold Monday night.

I had booked myself at the “brand new” Patio Hostel near the center of town. The directions from the train station to the hostel seemed pretty simple, but experienced backpackers know that any ostensibly simple directions are guaranteed trouble and shouldn’t be trusted. I was directed to take the number 1 tram outside the train station for four stops, get off and walk in the door of the hostel. Well, there was no number 1 tram. There was a 2 and a 3 and a 13, but no number 1. Furthermore, I was quite keen to take a Number 1, so I had to formulate a plan to get myself to a free toilet and quick. Fortunately, I had had the brains to download the map from the hostel’s web site and load it into my Palm Pilot, so it was possible for me to walk. I wasn’t exactly enthused about a two kilometer walk with two heavy bags, through a strange city, in the dark, with a full bladder, but I didn’t see any other choice (and any of you who are thinking “Um, taxi?” are pansies, plain and simple, and ya’ll shouldn’t be allowed to leave the resort without a chaperone). Sadly, for much of the way none of the street names on the provided map corresponded with the actual street names. It wasn’t even close. It was like I was in a totally different city, with an identical street layout, and I actually stopped once to verify that I was indeed in Bratislava and not in Bizarro Bratislava or Bratislava II. Still, using landmarks and good old fashion compass point awareness, I found the hostel after only getting seriously off track once.

I was informed upon arrival at Patio Hostel that the number 1 tram had been discontinued due to construction, however there was no explanation as to the painfully conflicting street name issues or why they hadn’t taken two minutes to update their web site with information about the tram construction. And it only got worse from there. I was handed my bedding and made my way through the institutional stairs and halls to my six person dorm, which was connected to yet another six person dorm room that used our room to enter and exit, effectively making our room a 12 person dorm, but that’s just semantics. Making the bed turned an absurd comedy. This “brand new” hostel had “old wrecked” hostel problems that started with the bedding. The pillow case only covered 80% of the pillow, the duvet cover was twice the size of the peculiar, three foot square munchkin duvet and the bottom sheet was about 18 inches too short to cover the mattress. The “lockers” were backless cubby holes with locks that weren’t anchored to the wall, so anyone with the motivation could simply pull the lockers away from the wall and have access to everybody’s valuables. And the building was alarmingly noisy. Not because people were being loud, but because every squeaky door (which most were), word of conversation, toilet flush, whatever was carried through the acoustically perfect cement walls of the stairways and hallways and right into the dorm rooms. In short, the place sucked and according to other travelers, the only other hostel in town was even worse. I suppose this is what you get for coming to a not exactly thrilling town.

Here's one way to spice up abandoned buildings

Exhaustion pushed me into bed before midnight, but the comings and goings and flushings and door squeakings of my 11 roommates who returned to the room in ones and twos at 20 minute intervals, from unlikely big nights out on a Monday in Bratislava, kept me up until after 2:00AM. One British shithead came in at 4:00AM, turned the light on and got ready for bed with a chorus of zips, bumps and slams like he wasn’t in a room full of sleeping people. He passed out and snored until 7:00AM when he got up, spent an hour repacking all of his stuff with a million zips and bumps and left a room full of wide awake people who were ominously murmuring about a good old fashion lynching. Even a group of three Italians, people renowned for their inability to keep quiet during sleeping hours in a hostel, were getting bent out of shape.

Slovak National Theatre

Even though I had only managed less than five cumulative hours of sleep, I knew that going back to sleep would be impossible and I pulled myself out of bed with the intention of seeing all of Bratislava’s top sites in one day. This turned out to be much less of a challenge than I had imagined. After self-catering a breakfast out of the nearby Tesco – even the hostel’s coffee machine was useless, offering only hot chocolate – I headed into the center of town with the self-tour pamphlet I picked up in the hostel lobby. My self-inflicted curse of off-season construction/renovation continued to dog me as nearly everything of interest in Bratislava, both inside and out was torn up and covered in scaffolding. I stopped first the Primate’s Palace, which I hoped might be a fancy monkey cage with antique furniture, a throne room, butlers and whatnot. Instead it turned out to be a modest palace, circa 1781, that had a small art gallery and some mildly old British tapestries on display. I passed on these bland attractions when I saw the entry fee and wandered through the adjacent Old Town Hall building, built in stages, using three historical styles over five centuries, which would have been very charming to look at if not for everything but the clock tower being covered in scaffolding. Next I visited St. Michael’s Gate and Tower. The old world gate/tower were a nice compliment and merged seamlessly with neighboring historical buildings. The tower is quite tall and I got it into my head to climb to the top for a photo, but to get to the top you had to go through a forlorn ancient weaponry museum, which had yet another entry fee that I was loath to pay.

Primate's Palace

The inner courtyard of the Old Town Hall

St. Michael’s Gate and Tower

Random scene from the city center

St. Martin's Cathedral, the motorway is just to the left

After slowly exploring the pedestrian-only city center, which despite the wall-to-wall designer clothing shops, was a wonderful old Europe backdrop in which to walk and hang out, I made my way to St. Martin’s Cathedral. The exterior of the cathedral is quite imposing and would be even more impressive if a hulking, raised motorway weren’t built just a few meters from the front door, making a good photo impossible without helicopter assistance. I slipped in to check out the interior just as an oddly timed, yet popular worship was ending (11:00AM on a Tuesday morning?). St. Martin’s is where they coronated 11 Hungarian kings between 1563 and 1830, so I was expecting something pretty grand inside, but it was disappointingly average by European standards, so I didn’t linger for long. Finally, I cut under the motorway and climbed the hill to see Bratislava Castle. The original castle is mentioned in text dating from the year 907, but the current castle has been almost entirely rebuilt since 1953 (they’re still not done). A VIP of some sort was visiting the castle when I arrived with a battalion of police, military and photographers in his entourage. Unfortunately, his/her presence made it impossible for anyone else to enter the main part of the castle. I walked around the side to take a few pictures and entered the Bastion and Bratislava Museum of Music. This I paid entry for as it seemed to be the only thing available to tourists on the hill that day and I was starting to get desperate for something gripping and memorable to take away from Bratislava. Sadly, the Music Museum was a dud for a music dullard such as myself and the supposed Bastion was nowhere to be found. I tried to get the skinny on the Bastion from the woman manning the door but the language barrier quickly defeated us. After a short wander through the grounds to ensure that I hadn’t overlooked a torture chamber or a harem or something, I gave up. I felt that I’d given Bratislava a good chance and while it certainly wasn’t a despicable place, it was no Duluth-with-a-castle either. Moreover, it was becoming clear that my general travel attitude was dive bombing and nothing short of a naked Jennifer Garner in a bowl full of medieval Jello was going to enthrall me in my current state of deep fatigue. I headed back to the hostel where I somehow managed to sneak in a two hour nap before my roommates started crashing in from their respective days of touring, looking no more excited or satisfied than if they’d just finished eight hours of data entry.


View of the river from the Palace

With little reason to hang around, I planned to catch the morning express train to the eastern city of Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city and eastern transport hub. I planned to stage the final leg of my journey back to Iasi from there, in addition to hopefully getting some rest in a private room and seeing something of notable tourist interest in the neighboring historic villages.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012