One Last Central Europe Hurrah: Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava, Slovakia is a city that’s been hit hard by pop culture. Remember that desolate wasteland featured in Eurotrip where the kids exchange $1.83 for the world’s most luxurious feast? Or, though I haven’t seen it, I hear Hostel paints a horrifying picture of what happens when you choose to backpack through Bratislava. In fact, as I learned while touring this so-called hellhole, Bratislava tourism dropped by a whopping 70% when the movie was released in 2005. Ouch.
As I prepare for this upcoming summer’s epic Balkans trip, I continue reflecting on last summer’s big trip to Central Europe. We began in Wrocław, Poland, continued to Berlin, Germany, then to Prague, Czech Republic, Vienna, Austria, and Budapest, Hungary before hitting our final destination: Bratislava, Slovakia.
So, did Bratislava live up to its media portrayal? Fortunately, I arrived in Slovakia unaware of those movies’ depictions and armed with glorious reviews from a friend with Slovakian family, and Bratislava turned out to be zero percent inferno, one hundred percent charming.
After finally interpreting bus signs and ticket machines written in Slovakian, we settled into our cute, mostly empty hostel up on a hill above the old town. We visited Bratislava Castle on that hill and looked out over the city then wandered down into the tiny old town, learning it hadn’t always been so tiny. While Prague was largely spared from 20th century turmoil, Bratislava received its fair share of damage from World War II bombardment and modernization by 20th century communist rule. Nonetheless, it still retains a beautiful, quaint historical center.
For lunch, we tried goulash, typical of the region, and then we met up with a free tour of the city, led by a charismatic Australian who gave us an intriguing history of Bratislava and Slovakia. We viewed a cannonball that’s been embedded in Old Town Hall since Napoleon attacked the city in 1809, the world’s narrowest kebab shop, a commemorative witch burning plaque, and the backdrop of an iconic Prague Spring photo (shouldn’t that be in Prague?). We also learned about the effects of the Nazi and communist regimes on the city and the important role Bratislava played in the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent Czechoslovakian revolution.
We saw a bit more of the city but relatively quickly exhausted the sights, so we settled in for a home-cooked dinner over a Eurocup match at our hostel. And, so, our Central Europe trip came to an end. Our thirteen days of visiting six cities in six countries, learning fascinating historical anecdotes about a region with such important recent history, meeting fantastic people, and trying new, cheap food and wine were over but stored in a special place in our hearts and memories.
After years of hopping back and forth between Spain and other destinations for brief weekend trips, I had no idea how I’d fare on such a fast-paced, relatively lengthy trip with budget accomodations/food/transportation and little sleep, but, by the end of the trip, I was fired up and could have continued on for another six countries. Fortunately, in just over a month, I’ll be departing on my month-or-so-long Balkans trip, hopefully hitting up 7+ new countries and a hoard of cities within. I say bring it.