By Richard West
I am here to help you win your next Pub Travel Quiz. Question one: what is Europe’s newest nation and capital?
Answer, Slovakia and Bratislava, est. 1993.
Question two: what are the world’s two closest national capitals?
Answer, Vienna and Bratislava, 40 kms., one hour apart via the train, where after a few days in Vienna, my wife and I recently found ourselves heading east to the Slovakian capital on the Danube where three nations—Austria, Hungary, Slovakia—meet.
After Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Soviet Union with its Velvet Revolution in 1989, Slovakia, in an amiable Velvet Divorce, split and became a republic four years later, joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and adopted the euro in 2009.
Bratislava’s attraction isn’t the ordinary, prosperous modern city of half a million, but arguably the most beautifully-preserved Old Town in Europe: a hilltop 10th-century castle 300 feet above the medieval red-roofed buildings, church spires, narrow cobblestone streets, and lovely squares cozily flanking the wide, slow-flowing Danube. Oh yes, car-free and prices roughly half you pay in Paris/London/Vienna/Amsterdam, Scandinavia, etc.
I suggest you stay at the Radisson Blu Carlton hotel with its unbeatable location overlooking Hviezdoslavovo Square, the neo-Renaissance-style Slovak National Theater, cafes and restaurants flanking the square opposite the hotel, all two minutes from the center of Old Town. Excellent buffet breakfast, original glass atrium ceilings, cozy bar, the Savoy restaurant serving Slovak dishes, wide terrace.
The obvious place to begin is Hlavne namestie, the large, open main square inevitably called “Central Europe’s living room,” surrounded by gorgeous buildings, cafes, the Old Town Hall next door to a Jesuit church (est. 1638), near the square’s flanking Greek and French embassies; in the center the Renaissance Maximilian fountain, Max as Knight Roland, protector of towns.
And Old Town’s most photographed (and photobombed) object: Hubert, the statue of a Napoleonic soldier leaning on a bench watching the crowds. Old Town is truffled with whimsical statues. Half a block away, Cumil, the watcher, the world’s only statue peering from a sewer; on a corner of the main square, Schone Naci, a life-size figure of Ignac Lamar, a poor loner who once roamed the streets in a cutaway coat, greeting folk with a raised top hat. As does his statue.
Leaving the square, what follows are pointillistic impressions observed during a few day’s aimless wanderings—wrong turnings, doubling back, pauses and digressions—through the labyrinth of centuries-old flagstoned and cobblestoned streets: a palate of walled yellow pastels…the awninged pale green café exactly the shade of a French calville apple…next to aging storefronts shadowing gray-to-black, time as soot…ring-nosed oxen door knockers…passages leading to congenially tatty shops, cul-de-sacs…geometric shapes on walls, figurines, ornate plaster work, cherubs, sylphs.
Gradually realizing the interesting mix of Soviet era comfily dilapidated and Western hip: no mannequins showing off Kenzo and Calvin, instead window displays of deja-vu 1970’s objets next to sushi-tapas-Mexican-smoothie-hot chocolate with ginger or cinnamon outlets…the occasional clunky Lada…stout women in rather shapeless pants with burly, overweight men…Che poster in smoky pub nudging sleek wine bar. Mondieu’s gushing chocolate fountain. Coffee beans from Guatemala in a Francino machine on the Pan Kralicek (“Mr. Rabbit”) cycle coffee cart.
Old joke from Soviet times: Capitalism’s the exploit of man by man. Communism’s the reverse.
Locals dress brings to mind what the Dutch call The Lost Hitchhiker Look. Great relief to be rid of Vienna/Paris/London’s ubiquitous haute luxe, newness strutting around as if significant. Instead, aging Commie funk morphing into creative Central European cool. Best examples of the latter, Old Town’s astonishing coffeehouse-bookstore-study halls not out of place in Boulder/North Beach/Cambridge: Martinus, Gorila.sk Urban Space, Urban House’s magazines-newspapers-book shelves-laptop obsessives-coffee cups-couches near a hammock. Back outside into the soft yellow light of autumn on Michael’s Gate and nearby Old Town’s narrowest house (width, four feet)…beautiful black street lamps…glimpses of the shiny red trams ribboning the edges of Old Town.
Food: influences of Austria-Hungary-Czech Republic, the carnivoracious land of pork, paprika, cabbage, goulash, hearty soups, trout…”Nech sa paci” (“There you go”), waiter-speak bringing orders…in homey Prasna Basta, the national dish for lunch: bryndzove haluski, gnocchi with sheep cheese and bacon bits, delicious with a Slovak white wine…return to the main square at dusk, choosing the Roland Restaurant-Café with its lovely Art Nouveau exterior for a preprandial glass, listening to the pianist.
After schnitzel-heavy Vienna, light Thai dishes in the calm, zen-like Green Buddha for our dinner, just off the main square. A walk toward the hotel and Danube. Down river, literally topping off our visit, the very Soviet-era UFO restaurant hovering on struts 310 feet above the bridge spanning the Danube. Congrats on the pub quiz win, enjoy your pint. Na zdorovie, comrades.