It is only 80 kms to Bratislava from Vienna and I am travelling by train. By now I have become quite proficient at dealing with the public transport system. It helps of course that Vienna’s train station is very modern and incredibly well signed in English so I navigate it with ease.
Arriving in Bratislava, according to the Google Map on my phone it should only take a few minutes to walk the short distance from the train station to the hostel. However, the little blue pointer on my Google Map must be faulty as it is spinning around and around and confusing me. One minute it tells me to walk forward, then it tells me I should have gone left and when I correct myself it tells me I should be walking in a different direction entirely. I’ve climbed the overpass across the busy intersection three times now. It is hot, my backpack is becoming unbearably heavy and I am completely exasperated, cursing loudly at my phone as I go!! Nearly forty minutes later my pointer mysteriously and coincidently gets its act together as I eventually fathom out map reading and finally decides to take me in the right direction!!
I am soaked in perspiration, my back hurts and I am really grumpy when I eventually arrive at the Hostel Possonium, but friendly Martin welcomes me warmly, nothing is too much trouble and as he settles me in all is soon forgotten.
My dorm is at the front of the hostel on a busy street, but it is comfortable and has an en suite for its eight bunks. My room mates aren’t at all chatty, but the hostel has a small shady garden area with a cabana bar and Marianna who works there, like Martin, is really welcoming and friendly. We immediately strike up a rapport and so after a much needed shower and Martin has assisted me with my washing I settle in to sip a cold beer and do some writing while I enjoy Marianna’s company.
I had been in two minds about whether to visit Bratislava or not. I am beginning to feel slightly jaded with city sightseeing and long to be near nature. However I am delightfully surprised to find Bratislava is an exciting mix of medieval old and state of the art new. At its centre, the Old Town (Stare Mesto) is a captivating smaller version of Prague without the hoards of tourists! Narrow cobbled streets twist and turn as they lead towards open squares and there is an abundance of al fresco cafes and restaurants along with the usual souvenir shops and tourist entrapments.
I take a sightseeing bus up to Bratislava Castle which dominates the town and from here I can see the city sprawling out: immediately below, the Old Town lies compact and quaint; beyond is the river Danube with the intriguing Most SNP Bridge, its tower dominating the river view with its bizarre UFO Restaurant atop, while on the far bank, modern business buildings stand tall and shiny. Further out rows and rows of ugly high rise apartments, a legacy from the days of communism, loom depressingly upwards and finally in the distance fields of wind turbines can be seen. Bratislava is a complex amalgamation of its extensive and equally complex history and I love it!
My electronic tablet is playing up and is hindering my writing so I am given directions to an electronics store in a shopping centre which I cross the Most SNP Bridge to get to. The bridge, which is the longest cable stayed bridge in the world is two tiered and I walk along the pedestrian and cycle path enjoying the views of the beautiful Danube, its powerful flow hypnotising to watch. Scores of River Cruise Boats are tethered along its banks and I’m sure their passengers will be happily assaulting the Old Town en masse. As I walk along absorbing the views traffic loudly and relentlessly rumbles across above me and I can’t help but admire this unique engineering feat.
When I arrive at the Aupark Shopping Centre I am completely taken aback by its ultra modern luxury. High end designer stores are intermingled with quality speciality shops and classy cafes and bars in a bright and polished air-conditioned complex. Even the toilets are five star standard and I briefly wonder if I could find a place to sleep inside the centre for a few days!
I take my time to wander through the centre basking in the pleasure of retail therapy, even if it is just to look longingly through shop windows at pretty dresses and delicate sandals, a luxury I am already missing.
After spending some time at the electronics store I manage to win over the rather serious young sales attendant, convincing him to give a poor middle aged backpacker blogger a discount on a much needed new Notepad! By the time we have done the deal and are sitting at a desk while he loads all the settings for me we are best friends. He tells me about his life in Bratislava with a job he enjoys, so many things to do in his leisure time, a great nightlife and his pride and joy his new fast car! He has a good life which he loves and he has no desire to ever leave Bratislava.
Later I am sitting on a park bench studying my map and a man stops to offer his assistance concerned that I might be lost. He has an Australian accent and we quickly strike up a conversation. I learn that he works in Bratislava for six months of the year, returning to Australia for the remainder and he gives me useful tips and suggestions to help me with my visit. I am touched by his kindness and later, taking his advice, I find myself in a little beer garden off the tourist track, enjoying a cold beer and some very tasty Slovakian food at local prices.
The following day, sailing against the current, I take a pleasant hour and half boat trip up the river Danube to visit Devin Castle, an impressive ruined fortification set upon a cliff top with a history that goes back as far as the Bronze and Iron Age.
There are numerous artefacts and information plaques along the steep pathway up to the fortification and at the very top one is rewarded with a landscape of ruined buildings, walls, staircases and open courtyards in various states of disrepair. Beyond the ruins, amazingly beautiful views of the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers spread out into lush green countryside beyond.
Across the River Morava lies Austria with its border running along the length of the river and subsequently the Danube. It is hard to imagine in this tranquil and pretty place that prior to 1989 the Iron Curtain ran along here, but all that remains now is a small piece of the wall erected as a monument dedicated to the four hundred or so men and women who died here trying to fight for freedom.
My return trip to Bratislava only takes half an hour, the boat driven by the sheer power of the Danube’s fast flowing current and as we sail swiftly along I contemplate my visit to Devin Castle and the Iron Curtain Monument. There is no doubt that throughout the ages this area has seen much conflict. However the Iron Curtain Monument is a stark reminder that only in very recent times these beautiful Eastern European countries I now freely and safely travel through have been under such a dark and controlling regime.
I can’t begin to imagine what difficult life experiences the people I mingle with might have endured in their lifetime, and as I think about my young friend at the electronics store with his good and happy life, I venerate the brave sacrifices that these people have made for the sake of freedom and for their younger generations.