Saturday, August 9, 2014

48 Hours in Slovakia

I arrived in Slovakia and texted my mom “Made it to Bratislava!” Her response was “Where? What country is that?”

This seems to be the central problem of Slovakia. No one knows where or who this country is since they split from the Czech Republic. George W. Bush was there during this presidency and congratulated Slovenia on their democratic state after so many years of Communism. Major international newspapers have even published maps featuring Slovenia in their place, or simply Czechoslovakia.

The Slovaks are not impressed, world.

Nearly every Slovak person I met asked me that if I liked Slovakia, would I please tell everyone I know to come and visit the country and see for themselves why it is so great? After the movie The Hostel came out, telling the (made up) story of several international travelers who wanted cheap beer and hot girls in Slovakia then were murdered brutally, tourism here went down 75%! I am here to tell you that nothing remotely horrible happened to me in Slovakia, and I had more than one person tell me they would personally sew me back up if I was axe murdered.

Not only did I not hate my time in Slovakia, I loved it! Friendly, beautiful, laidback and full of history, Bratislava is a must-see if you are in the area, even if you can’t stay more than a half day. And they make it very easy to come from Vienna, by bus, train or boat, or if you are taking the bus from Prague to Budapest it’s along all the routes.

The old North Gate into Bratislava, the old remaining city gate.
How Long: I took the 50 minute bus from Vienna to Bratislava on a Sunday and left on another bus to Budapest (2 and a half hours away) on Wednesday. (Note: this is longer than most people stay in Bratislava, and you can see all the major sites in much less time.)

What I did: Free walkingtours are my best friends! Bratislava is a very small city center, but this great tour was still 2½ hours long and full of great information and history. You really can see all of Bratislava and grab a plate of food in a few hours, if you really wanted to, but I don’t see any reason to rush, personally.

I would recommend avoiding an arrival on Monday, when all of the museums are closed and shops don’t open up till late. Even the pub crawl offered by our free walking tour was not operating on Mondays. Any other day of the week you’ll find the town much busier.

Bratislava main square

The Blue Church, an incredible work of art. 
Along the Danube, with winding and cobbled streets, you can find great food for cheap prices, lots of shops and museums including interactive exhibits with costumed locals. There are the remnants of the old town gates, the cathedral where the Hungarian kings were crowned centuries ago and cannon balls in the sides of the town hall where Napoleon’s troops bombed. The city is full of modern contradictions though: you can climb the hill to the newly-fully renovated Bratislava Castle and see across the river to the Communist suburbs, where miles of blocky high rises remind you of another era, not so recently passed. It was determined that Prague should remain the historic center of Czechoslovakia and Bratislava the industrial, so as you walk along you’ll pass beautiful 18 Century opera houses and ornate churches, right next to Soviet-era abandoned hospitals, covered in graffiti and statues of the working man. But there are beautiful, tree-lined and busy central squares to wander, filled with bean bag chairs and music in the evenings.

Across from the Blue Church, an abandoned Soviet hospital
I also found my way to a little stall in front of the state Opera House, featuring a different Slovak wine maker each week, where you can taste the wine (a full glass!) for a single Euro. I had a great conversation one evening with the young wine maker from the eastern side of Slovakia about wine making, California, Slovakia and traveling.

The view from Trenčín Castle
On my second day, I took the 1 ½ hour train ride to Trenčín, a smaller city north east of Bratislava. It was a little cooler in the foothills of the mountains (also, I was told that if I was staying longer and wanted to hike and camp, the mountains of Slovakia are amazing places to explore) and this little gem is not to be missed. A tiny little old town, but bustling with life and people in the summer, Trenčín also features a huge castle fortress in the hills above the city.

My sweet little 13 year old heart just about exploded, wandering around this castle, nearly empty of tourists at this time of day. Unfortunately there were no guided tours in English and not too many signs around the grounds with information about what I was looking at, but wandering up spiraling staircases to the top of the towers, with flags whipping in the air and amazing views of the whole valley below – well it was a magical experience for me. This was the sort of castle of my day dreams, ancient but not cold, and I could feel the life that would have existed here.

Trenčín Castle from the City Center.
Where I stayed: I stayed at the Patio Hostel, just outside of Old Town. A great location (close to Old Town, but a little bit of a walk from the main train and bus stations, be aware), with a nice outside area for sitting and drinking, as well as a bar downstairs. I was in a 4 person mixed dorm for a great price, and enjoyed a very comfortable bed. One of their greatest features is free laundry, however since it’s a rare gem, the laundry room was FULL of drying laundry hanging from every surface.

What I ate: Traditional Slovakian food is by far my favorite so far on this trip! The Bryndzové halušky is tiny curd-like dumplings drenched in creamy sheep cheese with dill and bacon on top. It’s like the saltiest, creamiest gnocchi and cheese you can imagine! Rich and heavy, I ate it every day.  You can also get a wide array of dumplings, pierogis and fruit-based highly alcoholic liquors. Make sure you go to Slovak Pub just outside of Old Town Bratislava, where you’ll find good priced, tasty, traditional dishes, in rooms designed to look like houses and countryside pubs celebrating centuries of Slovak history. Also, as in all cities along the river, follow the golden rule: The Closer You Are to the Danube, The More the Food Will Cost.

Total Costs: Slovakia, like much of Central Europe, is cheap. The minimum wage here is only 2 Euro an hour, so especially if you are not in a tourist trap you’ll find things very cheap. The hostel was around $15 a night, full meals were about $6 without beer and beer/wine was about $1.50 for a glass. The train to and from Trenčín was about $17 in total. Getting from here to Budapest was a little over $10!

What I Wish I’d Known: I was a little nervous at first because I’d booked my hostel for 3 nights when everyone around me seemed to only be staying one, maybe two tops. But I’ve learned that I love not huge, but vibrant cities where I can learn some history and wander, then read a book by the river for a few hours. If you are looking for a huge night life, there is certainly some in Bratislava but you’ll probably quickly want to go back to a bigger city like Prague or Budapest.

Language is becoming more and more of a problem for me, though English speakers were not too hard to find. At least in Germany I could say “Danke!” but the sounds are more and more impenetrable every country south I go. This was more of a problem in Trenčín than Bratislava, and I imagine as one moves east it would be even worse. 

Sitting on the old fortress walls of Trenčín Castle, overlooking the city and valley.

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