A few months ago, Gregory and I decided to visit Bratislava. It was an easy decision for me. I’d never been there and had heard great things about the city.
These are some of the responses we got when we told people where we were going:
- “Never heard of it.”
- “Where’s that?”
- “Isn’t that in one of those Yugoslavia countries?”
- “Chachachacha?” (my young niece)
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country in Eastern Europe. Between 1918 and 1993 it formed part of what was then called Czechoslovakia, together with the present Czech Republic. According to Metod, one of my Taxify drivers in Bratislava, the country has a population of five million people, the same as Finland.
This is relevant because? “Finland won the World Cup in 1994 or 1995,” he said. “Slovakia won the World Cup in 2002.”
It took me a while to figure out he was talking ice hockey. This was my clue: “Do you know how many ice hockey arenas they have in Finland? Twenty-six. In Slovakia? One. Just one!…
I was thinking how amazing it was that Slovakia could win a World Cup with such limited resources compared to Finland. He smacked his forehead with his hand.
“For a hundred million euros. A hundred. Million. Euros. For one stadium. Why? Corruption.”
So we’re not alone in the world on that front.
Metod also told me a friend of his visited South Africa in 2010 for the Soccer World Cup and got rubbed. At the time I hoped he meant “robbed”, but thinking back on our conversation I have changed my mind. Getting rubbed would probably have been less unpleasant all round.
Having conversations like this is a big reason I travel. Those 10 minutes in the car with Metod helped me to understand a little bit more about the big, wide world – and, indeed, about myself and my prejudices.
We used Taxify – and walked a lot! – to get around Bratislava. Whenever we got into a Taxify and the driver was young, I assumed he (always he) could speak English. If he was old (like me) I assumed he couldn’t. I was proved wrong a couple of times, but it reminded me of the dominance of English as a “universal” language in Europe. Under communist rule, there was no English in Slovakia. But 25 years later you have a generation of young urbanites who have the language waxed. You’ll also find English and German on menus in most restaurants, but adoption of the universal language ends there – which made shopping for groceries extremely interesting.
So, should you visit Bratislava? Absolutely, yes! Here are some reasons why:
- It’s easy to get to from South Africa. It’s probably best to fly to Vienna and catch a bus from the airport. It takes 45 minutes to get to the central Bratislava bus station and bus tickets cost between €7 and €10.
- It hasn’t really been “discovered” yet. Unlike many of the more traditional holiday destinations, Bratislava is uncrowded, unharried and extremely friendly. We were welcomed into shops, restaurants and tourist attractions with big smiles. The locals are delighted to welcome visitors.
- It is relatively inexpensive compared to other European cities. Our accommodation in a high-rise apartment block in the “new” part of town was around R900 per night (on booking.com). A typical meal for two (with beer, of course) usually cost us in the region of €25.
- There’s a lot to do. The old town is small enough to walk everywhere. The Bratislava Castle (in the old town) is impressive and well worth a visit. Also check out Urban House (Laurinská 213) for great food, coffee and craft beer. Naturally my journalistic happy-juices did flick-flacks when we saw a restaurant called Pulitzer (Župné námestie 7). Turned out to be a great find. The ribs were excellent.
- A few kilometres outside town (in opposite directions) are the Devin Castle and the Meulensteen Art Museum, both well worth a visit. You can get there by Taxify (there’s no Uber in Slovakia) for around €10 each way. (We later discovered that the number 90 bus goes from Old Town to Danubiana. Not sure of the details, but we saw the bus right outside our front door as we were being dropped off.) There are some great little bistro-type places in Devin, but don’t expect anything much food-wise at Meulensteen. The “café” is rather pricey and didn’t have any food when we visited. We ended up eating horrible cake (because we were hungry) and drinking cold coffee. Here (and nowhere else) we encountered a waitress with attitude. However, the museum itself is spectacular and was the highlight of the trip for me.
- I was also interested in the 10km running circuit along the banks of the Danube and through the forested park that lies alongside the river. I didn’t actually run the entire circuit, but I did have a great 5k run along the promenade.
- If you’re into shopping, visit Eurovea. There are some great stores there that we don’t have in SA (including Desigual!).
We also did a day trip to Vienna, which was not my cup of tea. I found it ostentatious, crowded and expensive – not my vibe at all. (Maybe we just didn’t plan or prepare properly.) Anyway, I have been there now. Box ticked. Plenty of world left to see. Let’s see where the wind blows us next time.
And if your winds blow you towards Eastern Europe, make sure to spend a few days in Bratislava. It really is a gem.
Here are a couple of pics taken at the Meulensteen Art Museum: