What do three 30-somethings do when on their own in Vienna for the holidays? After Xmas markets have been plumbed for trinkets and various forms of dough-based treats, cobbled streets have been wandered and imperial architecture has been ogled, what is next for weary holiday adventurers?
The answer, of course, involves Bratislava.
Our story begins, not in a bnb in Vienna, but in the plot of an early 00’s teen comedy. As anyone knows, a good romp of the aughts involves a well-meaning, yet somewhat misguided male lead, a girl who captures his fancy, and a motley crew of friends who embark on a tomfoolerous adventure in order to bring the two together. Hilarity ensues, as do awkward sexual encounters, ludacris turns of chance and, in some cases, Lucy Lawless as an iron-fisted German dominatrix. Of course, I’m referring to EuroTrip.
It’s certainly not a pinnacle of the genre but – in spite of a rocky first act – the film does manage to pull itself into something fun and watchable in the latter half. Then again, it was definitely created from a North American perspective, tackling Europe with all the grace of a nation whose stereotypes of the continent are locked sometime in the early 90s.
Following a series of misadventures, our adventurers wind up stranded on the side of a motorway, barely a penny between them, and desperately attempting to hitchhike to Berlin. In a seeming turn of luck – and flashed breasts…it is a 00’s rom-com after all – a truck driver pulls over and offers them a ride. In painfully broken German, our crew believes they’ve suitably communicated their destination to a driver who enthusiastically agrees.
If you recall, I mentioned some ensuing hilarity… Well strap yourselves in, because here it comes!
In a shocking twist we discover that the driver completely misunderstood the interaction. Oh yes, he has no intention of ever returning to Berlin! Nossir, he’s going the entirely opposite direction and heading deep into Eastern Europe. To the city of Bratislava.
Bratislava doesn’t come across in the most positive light in this story.
As our weary travellers unfold themselves from the dark of the truck’s cargo hold, they’re greeted with surroundings which are definitely not what one could consider Berlin-esque. Dirty streets cut between decrepit apartment blocks. Balconies are strewn with lines of drying clothes. An old man bathes from a bucket in the street while a 3 legged dog stumbles through rubbish to look forlornly at the camera.
It’s this scene that J, C, and myself recall while sitting in the comfort of a pub in Vienna. We’ve seen signs proclaiming the beauty of Bratislava, a mere hour’s train journey away. It’s this scene that inspires us to take a break from Austria’s illustrious capital to visit it’s sister city. Proclamations of beauty and history didn’t do it for us. Not a whit. We’re going on a fact-checking mission to discredit a mediocre early 00’s teen comedy. Train tickets are €6 so, really, what could go wrong?
Things started out so well
As sensible people, we knew that the truth was probably far from the fiction. As three not-so-well-travelled North Americans, with next-to-no knowledge of eastern Europe, we also had certain expectations. I’m a little ashamed to admit that those expectations weren’t high. Sadly, reality would find an odd bit of middle-ground between what we expected, what we’d be shown, and the city that Bratislava actually is.
The day started out beautifully. Departing the HBF in Vienna, we were treated to sun and blue skies. The city gave way to rolling green hills and pastoral scenes stretching in all directions. It was like a picture book. We played card games, marvelled at the speed of the train, and prepped for a day in Slovakia’s capital.
There’d be markets, a castle, a beautiful touristy old town, complete with cobbled streets, bakeries, and some lovely architecture. Mozart famously spent time in the city on his European tours. The locals also seemed quite proud of Most SNP, the world’s longest single pylon bridge.
As advertised, however, everything changed.
Somewhere around the midpoint of our journey, we began to question our choices. None of us noticed the transition… suddenly our natural vistas had become engulfed in a pea soup of swirling fog. It was like something out of a mid-90’s video game. Visibility was cut to a scant few metres. Where once a beautiful landscape of forest and grassland drifted past, now darkened shapes and shadows loomed out of a thick brown-grey miasma. The scant few signs of human civilisation were limited to lower portions of apartment blocks, ruined farmhouses, and ghost-like towers of power stations. At one point, shadows loomed ominously above, only to be revealed as light passing behind the spinning blades of a wind farm, all but obscured from view. Things were not looking good.
Bratislava is actually a beautiful place
Which is something I wouldn’t have guessed from the train station. Our first view of the city itself included a small gaggle of meth addicts, a couple of heavily-tattooed backpackers in heated debate, and a mother physically shaking her toddler. We were not ready for this.
Eager to get into the city itself, and put distance between us and the station, we hustled our way outside. Keeping a wide perimeter from the searching stares of the addicts, side-stepping the now wailing toddler and similarly irritated backpackers, we promptly made a wrong turn.
Wrong turns can lead to unexpected adventures. Some of my favourite experiences have come from taking the long way around and encountering people and places beyond the guide books. The long way from the station to the old city is not something I would recommend. Less so when fog has turned the city into a scene straight out of Silent Hill.
Winding through the streets, we encountered peeling paint and deteriorating patinas. Road ways cracked and crumbled around signs often obscured by rust and weeds. A billboard proudly proclaimed the return of a much loved musician…in 2011. Approaching one home, we noticed an indent in the wall which appeared to be a deeply set window, but revealed itself as a gaping hole in which years of rubbish had been secreted. We briefly considered taking a photo, but then thought guilty of potentially being caught by a local resident. Rather than be those tourists, we hurried on…
… Ducking in to a local park. The fog let up for a moment, affording us a brief view of the city’s castle on a hill – an almost magical sight as it hung in the air, seemingly suspended in cloud. Yet in the briefest of moments, it was gone. We found ourselves returned to a small park, mired in muted colours and damp tones courtesy of the days weather. An assortment of crumbling angel sculptures did nothing but add to the already dire atmosphere.
I’ll cut to the chase… it wasn’t looking good for Bratislava. The markets we’d expected, having shuttered for a day of rest, sat like raggedly-clothed skeletons on near empty streets. Most shops remained shuttered for the holidays while locals celebrated at home. The few like-minded tourists were treated to darkened skies, a penetrating cold, and several small protests pursuing government reform. Where were we in all of this? Lost wandering aimlessly through an empty industrial quarter. Resourceful travelers we were not on this day.
Kidding aside, we did eventually find our way to the centre of town and the old city.
Despite the ever present fog and its reluctant revelations of castle and Danube, it was a lovely destination. This was the Bratislava we had expected; warm, welcoming, and as alive with activity as it could be on a 26 December afternoon.
Excited to see another side of the city, we opted to venture out to the fabled Most SNP, which did not disappoint. I mean, it’s a big concrete bridge so it’s best to keep expectations within reason, but it is a sight to see. The thickening fog added to the scene, allowing a person’s imagination to run wild.
Sure, maybe I was just a tourist getting his first glimpse of Eastern Europe… or was I actually an international spy? Working for the highest bidder, yet lassoed to my own stringent moral code, I’d worked my way eastward, hot on the trail of a cabal of dry goods smugglers. Their nefarious deeds had lead me on a harrowing adventure down the Danube, jumping from ship to skiff, assuming identities as I drew nearer and nearer to my quarry. Now posing as a foreign trader with interest in the boxed fabrics trade, I’d wriggled my way into favour with a local dockyard and was within spitting distance of unravelling the entire affair.
…or I was simply frustrated that I’d just found out that A, the castle was closed. And B, having walked across the Most we’d found nothing of interest and would have to walk the entire way back in order to find food. First world problems are still problems, I might add.
Find food, we did!
And tourist tchotchkes. Surrounded by stunning architecture, we managed to suss out a great local beer hall, and perhaps the best beer of our entire Xmas adventure. Serving a bevy of local options, as well as imported craft faves, this little spot sat at the base of the castle and seemed excited to find some custom on a quiet afternoon. They were also able to provide us directions to a gem of a restaurant nestled in the old town.
Looking for local dishes brought us to a great underground spot, slightly hidden down an alley off of the main thoroughfare. It immediately reminded me of old wine cellars and beer halls of German fame.
Surprising no one – save for one waiter who had to double check that we had, in fact, ordered a salad – our food arrived in an assortment of shades ranging from brown to yellow. Damn did we not care. Delicious breaded pork lead to perogi-like dumplings, which gave way to a spicy chicken dish and an assortment of grilled veggies, we were far from disappointed. Credit goes for the salad, too, which not only wasn’t on the menu, but I suspect was made up of items generally reserved for garnish and sauces.
Warmed from the cold, well fed, and travel worn, we opted to make a slow return back to the station and Vienna. Perhaps also emboldened by food and beer, or just not wanting to risk another wrong turn in the dark, we opted for a city tram. Experienced travellers would’ve found this to be an easy, no fuss, prospect…however, we managed to make it less than smooth. Suffice to say, a little fussing with currency, and a slightly frustrated driver lead us to an easy tram ride back to the station, now delightfully lacking in baby shaking and meth aficionados.
It had been an unexpected day. Had we planned better, perhaps we would have visited around a national holiday, but I’m pretty happy with the small glimpse we had of Bratislava. It had its moments, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were a little worried at several stages, but it certainly scratched our itch for an adventure. Not only that, but I can now say that I’ve traveled to a foreign land inspired entirely by fact checking a trope laden teen comedy.
The journey certainly lit a fire in me to one day return trip Slovakia. Not only do I want to experience some of the amazing things the country has to offer, but I’d like to visit Bratislava again under…more favourable conditions.
Now I know how visitors to London feel when they’re beset by unfortunate English weather.