Bratislava: The Difference of an Hour
January 1, 1970
by Stephanie Marie
Vienna to Bratislava
One of the problems of working with kids is that when you forget your iPod on a weekend trip you’re stuck spending the entire ride listening to Taylor Swift on repeat because your phones memory has space for only one album. I have no problem with Taylor, but when you walk into your hostel (I stayed at Pation Hostel, which was excellent, and 14 euro a night!!) on play number 34 of ‘Shake It Off’ pop music in general doesn’t really fit your mood. What does is three Italian boys, so hangover they’re still in bed at 2pm in the afternoon, who wake up momentarily to ask you to come to lunch; the exact greeting I received when I arrived in Bratislava.
If you’re not from Europe and you know where Bratislava is then congratulations. Otherwise, it’s the capital of Slovakia, an hour east of Vienna but a whole different world. Vienna is cleanliness, money, palaces, massive churches, and extravagance. Bratislava, well, isn’t. As an Australian my amazement of how an hour (and a 13 euro return bus ride) can create such cultural diversion is basically infinite. However, ten minutes into my time in the city I was boycotting my attempt to correct my personal lack of knowledge in favor of finding food due to said Taylor Swift overdose. The problem with making lunch dates with hungover people is that you will both end up eating hangover food and it will take three times as long to make it to that food. This lunch in particular was no exception; crab kebabs with a years supply of mayonnaise followed by Red Bull ice cream (in summer ice cream stalls line the streets selling hundreds of flavours for an euro a scoop) eaten in a park with no bins and consequentially enough rubbish to fill four of them.
Old Town and Castle
At this point I now had three newly revived friends in the mood to trek it through the old town and up to Bratislava’s self named castle. If there is one word to describe the old town it would be manageable. Like every old town it has its own beauty but the majority of major tourist attractions are centered on one street. Slovakia has never been rich (we are talking 35c bus tickets) and it shows, but that’s its distinct charm. The buildings are humble, surrounding streets are crumbling, and things are a distinct grey. The street art is faded and often peeling off the walls. The truth is in all its faults it’s cute. It’s not overdone or packed with tourists or culturally diluted. In an abandoned ruin behind the cathedral we find a bookshelf completely alone in a room; the humble Slovakian book exchange. In contrast the castle, the major draw point for tourists to make the trip over from Prague or Vienna, however is a brilliant shiny white, brightly lit and situated high over the town. It was destroyed after a fire and rebuilt in a modern, minimalistic way, full of white wall and simple gold details. So in the cleanest building in Bratislava, we take a break, slouching over the steps, taking in the view of the city and the Danube. At this point I find myself massaging two Italian boys heads, because Italians are touchy feely to begin with and apparently the giddiness of travel makes me okay with ridiculously quick advances in friendships. Despite their complaints we also made it to the top of the tower overlooking the Danube and the town itself. At this point I think lack of sleep and ‘post climbing towers in 40 degree heat’ dehydration started to take a toll and things started to get a little weird.
In those next couple of hours we became the definition of horrible tourists. This started out partially as my fault, or more so, the fault of my competitive streak which I attempt to dissociate myself from as much as possible. This streak means that I basically refuse to lose and I can’t resist anything I know I have a pretty decent chance of winning. So when James (Italian boy number 1) challenged me to a thumb war with the consequence being the loser having to following the nearest person, acting like a chicken, I agreed, and conquered. When I make these types of bets I don’t actually ever expect someone to follow through but that is exactly what he did unfortunately for a very bewildered Slovakian lady. After this I decided to call it quits on crazy for the next hour and the boys to return to bed as their post hungover high was replaced by sleep deprivation. We made the relatively slow climb down the hill together before I departed to see/photograph the UFO Bridge and a little of the communist side of the river.
Communism and UFO Bridge
Across the Danube, Bratislava transforms completely. Although I have never been east of the city itself I assume the following description is somewhat true everywhere outside of the old town. The first thing that greets you as you make your way off either the new (Novy Most – UFO) or the old bridge is the ginormous, Sad Janka park which stretches between them. One of the oldest parks in Europe, the structured 18th century star formation makes it seem a little rigid and dull, as well as making it quite hard to navigate. If you can mange however there is a Franciscan church with a prominent tower, a small cemetery and an array of statues dedicated to famous Slovaks. Beyond the park is the characteristic rows of communistic houses, in various colors, stemming from the period of centralization in the mid 1900s. Although Slovakia was more against the idea of socialism than their Czech counterparts, over the decades, they were as much consumed by it. Intellectuals were initially silenced by the ‘benefits’ of socialism including improved health care, education, employment rates, and housing opportunities (which could be easily implemented by the scheme post war) and eventually violence at the hands of dictators during and surrounding the period of occupation. Within the park itself there is also many memorials which have minimal explanation of this period as well as a museum in the center dedicated to the topic. This serious theme is relieved by the modern ‘beach’ that lines the border of the river to the park, with cafes, floating clubs, and imported sand. As I had promised to meet the boys for dinner and a few drinks, and the sun was beginning to set, I headed back across the aptly named UFO Bridge.
The sunset that I watched walking across the bridge has got to be one of my favourite Europe experiences so far. I love sunsets; the colors, the routine, and the way everything feels calm for that 20-minute period. If you ever take me on a sunset date though I’d probably punch you because I also hate watching sunsets with other people. I’ve learnt pretty quickly that I am an exuberant introvert; I like my own thoughts and I need a lot of time alone with them, but I also love interaction. A two hour walk around the river, stopping whenever I wanted and venturing back and forth to wherever I wanted in complete silence was the most at peace I have felt in a long time. Generally Aupairing is a pretty stressful, tiring job and anyone who thinks otherwise probably hasn’t experienced it first hand. It makes you desperate for three things that are meant to come naturally with being a teenager but are deprived from you, by having to work and live in the same place; partying until all hours, having zero responsibility and having complete quiet. That deprivation probably leads to a series of poor decisions later in the night.
A Night Out
After a dinner of traditional Slovakian food (roast pork leg, onion soup and sour cabbage) and a few to many cigarettes and shots of liquor, we hit the town. Whilst alcohol is cheap in Vienna it is nothing compared to Slovakia where a majority of the drinks cost fewer than 2 euros in a bar. A half-liter beer with our meal each cost as a grand total of 20 euro combined, which makes me believe the age old tale of riche Viennese driving across just for an evening out. Despite this price, the boys decided they still needed a little extra pick-me-up for the night, and whilst I was definitely too tipsy already, I accompanied them on their search for weed. The problem with buying weed in foreign countries is that a majority of people who will sell you it also won’t speak English. For this reason choosing your dealer is pretty important. Picking someone who is likely to know where you can find it but also wont give you something dodgy, pickpocket you, or offer you something a lot harder, is a very delicate process. A strong word of advice is if there is a group of 8 people playing with a live rat on a table, all sporting actual rats tails, and missing multiple t-shirts and teeth them, you’re probably going for the wrong crowd. I know because at 12.30am in the morning, alcohol fueled, we attempted that, in the first dodgy pub we found a block from our hostel, and promptly found ourselves getting chased down a street. It is safe to say the adrenaline rush that comes from being openly gawked at and then asked to come ‘out the back’ by a man in overalls alone, isn’t the kind you aim for.
That is how we find ourselves, puffing and panting, outside of a strip club. I find when a night starts like this there is only two distinct paths it can then follow; everyone goes home, scared, or everyone gets really, really drunk, high on surviving a ‘near death experience’. I tend to react the second way because after several months of solo travelling I’ve pretty much figured out how to squash fear simply by ignoring its existence. From what I gather strip clubs are an overwhelming experience for even people who want to go there, let alone someone who is, for the most part, not promiscuous. My first instinct on entering this club (in which, I was the only non-working female) was to stare in awe and to talk to the women dancing. It intrigues me greatly to understand what drives someone to become a stripper, but after a 20-minute chat with one of the strippers I had a pretty decent answer; money and ease. This particular girl was from Prague and had been living in Bratislava for a year. She was educated (and spoke [perfect English, Czech, and Slovakian), all her friends and family were well aware of what she did as a job, and she was composed. This was an indication as to how relaxed the attitude to sex is in Eastern Europe and perhaps a wake up call on my own stereotypical views of the sex industry. Rather than being ostracized by the women, I was ostracized by the men in the club who were crude, not only to those working but to me, as another woman in the club, most of whom were tourists on ‘boys holidays’. At this point I decided to bail on the night; head spinning a little, quite drunk and left the boys to return to the hostel alone.
That 10 minute walk was pretty scary. Unfortunately I have become incredibly used to the feeling of complete safety that surrounds Vienna. Although this is also a false pretense, I can count on walking home, taking multiple U-Bahns (metros) at 3am without being catcalled or harassed 99% of the time. Bratislava functions much more like a Australian or English city in the fact that a babyish looking girl alone isn’t going to go unnoticed. I resorted to my normal self-protection method; pretending to speak on the phone in German – hoping the staring people would think twice about approaching me, both because they might not understand me and because I was ‘accompanied’, at least remotely. The positive of this situation was I made it back to the hostel in record time and collapsed into bed, for a solid 8 hours of sleep before kick out time, much needed before my venture to Devin Castle the next day.