It seems most tour companies combine a stay in Vienna with a day trip to the Old Town of Bratislava. When my Airbnb accommodation fell through, I considered staying in Vienna and taking a day trip by train. I’m so pleased I didn’t.
I found a hotel on Booking.com which had great reviews and booked in for 8 days. The hotel is three tram stops from the centre of Bratislava, tucked down a quiet side street and my room has a couch in it. It’s spotlessly clean, and the staff are kind and helpful.
I had to get a ticket for the opera the next night, so I jumped on a tram to the Old Town and nearly got run down in the process. Trams have right of way here, and the tracks are in the centre of the road. Cars drive up on ramps which are situated directly next to the pavement. You must keep your eyes peeled when getting on and off a tram, as cars drive next to the doors.
Google maps don’t work in the Old Town, the wi-fi signal is very poor. So, I had to find my way using a street map. I needed a ticket for the two hour opera in French on Saturday night. I didn’t particularly want to see it, as my French is a bit rusty these days, but I needed to see the inside of the building for research purposes.
The next day I wandered around the Old Town in the rain and came across a cultural festival which highlighted Bratislava talent. I watched a group of children in national dress dance various polkas for 20 minutes! The polka is very energetic, and I hadn’t realised it originated in Slovakia. Stalls were selling fish soup the local dish for one Euro. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so strict but needs must.
Onto the opera. Except it wasn’t the opera, communication difficulties had surfaced once again, I had bought a ticket for the International Piano competition. I felt underdressed as the auditorium filled with locals who had dressed up to the nines for the occasion. To loud applause the Slovakian Philharmonic Orchestra appeared on stage in full evening dress and proceeded to play Beethoven and Mozart with three solo pianists. The last classical concert I attended was in London in the 80’s, and I’d found it tedious and avoided them since. To my surprise I enjoyed it and I’ve changed the plot of the book to include the concert.
I decided to take a boat trip to an art gallery on the Danube but it was cancelled due to low water levels! I opted to take a cruise down the Danube to Castle Devin. This is a medieval castle, but it’s now a complete ruin and has amazing views. You can for the price of 8 Euro, walk around the entire site which is huge. But medieval castles don’t interest me. I came here because during the Cold War this was the fortified border between Austria and the Eastern Bloc. The banks of the river had fences, barbed wire, watch towers with soldiers and wolf dogs patrolling it. Standing in the drizzle, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what it must have looked like in 1982. There is a plaque to commemorate those who lost their lives while trying to flee, and an arch which is riddled with bullet holes.
Today I went on a private tour with Peter and visited Communist buildings and sites around Bratislava. I could never have found these places on my own. I forgot to mention, all signs are in Slovakia and I can’t understand any of it. The first port of call was an amazing indoor market which hadn’t been modernised. I could have stepped back into the 80’s. Young people don’t come here, only pensioners who exist on between 200-300 Euro a month.
An old style café served food for 2 euros, and the customers ate their food standing up while a queue formed outside. Wine is 1.50 euro a litre but you have to bring your own plastic bottle. Two wine shops were doing a brisk trade. It costs 20 cents for a glass and it’s common for the patrons to stay there all day. We drove past the national radio station which is an upside down pyramid and a disused metal fountain, typical Communist structures.
Onwards to the border, where Peter took me to a bunker which had been built in 1936 in preparation for war against Germany. It wasn’t utilised, as Chamberlain and the British Government effectively handed Czechoslovakia over to the Germans.
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
— Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sept. 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement.
I was surprised at the bitterness Peter expressed about the British, because of Chamberlain’s lack of action, Slovakia suffered for nearly 60 years under the Nazi’s and the Soviets. I shared with him my Dad’s view that most British people felt awful leaving Czechoslovakia to its fate and despised Chamberlain’s lack of leadership.
Our last port of call was Slavin the Soviet cemetery where 6,845 Red Army soldiers fell in the retaking of Bratislava from the Germans. This took place in the final days of WWII, between 25 March and 5 May 1945, when 17,000 Soviet soldiers died in the retaking of Czechoslovakia.
I’ve enjoyed my time here, andhave great material for my book and an understanding of Slovakian history which I hadn’t been aware of. I never realised the Soviet Union military causalities were
Next time Budapest!