We arrived in Bratislava in the afternoon and our airbnb host met us at the train station. He had already bought three tickets for the bus and he offered to carry my luggage. He rode the bus with us to our apartment and showed us around. The apartment was one of the best we have stayed in – everything was there. The bathroom was stocked with toiletries and the kitchen was stocked with everything you could possibly need for cooking as well as enough food in the pantry for a dinner or two, all for our use. We were very pleased and happy with the fantastic start to this new country.
Slovakia was never a country I gave much thought to; however, given it’s proximity to Vienna (Vienna and Bratislava are the world’s two closest capital cities) we though we would stop over in Bratislava en-route to Budapest. Slovakia, officially the Slovak Republic and formerly part of Czechoslovakia, is a small country with only about 5.5 million people. Really not knowing anything about Slovakia or the Slovak people we decided this would be the perfect opportunity to partake in a walking tour. We opted for the “Free Walking Tour” (there is one offered in almost every city although for whatever reason we usually don’t do them).
We arrived a bit early for our walking tour and were the first ones to arrive, another ten or so people showed up but the group remained quite small. Our guide said at the same time last week there had been a group of over 40 people! The tour is aimed to explore Bratislava’s major sites while teaching the participants a bit about “Slovakia’s culture, traditions, history and future”. Before the tour, I couldn’t imagine how we could spend 2.5 hours walking around the small city but I guess I didn’t understand just how much stopping and talking we would do. While I enjoyed the level of information we got, it was pretty cold just standing still outside in the near-freezing weather.
Two of the most interesting stories our guide told us were about Slovak traditions. Traditionally, at Christmas, Slovaks go to the streets to buy a fresh, live fish for their Christmas feast – during the Christmas season there is a massive increase in street vendors selling live fish (we didn’t see any at the time). The fish is usually bought at least a few days before Christmas and kept alive in the household bathtub until the day of the feast. She said it can be hard for kids who get attached to the fish living in their bathroom to eat it for Christmas dinner! Another tradition I found both shocking and amusing is what Slovaks do on Easter. Supposedly, boys/men whip girls/women (only ones they know – friends/family) and are thanked with shots of alcohol and money from every household they visit; while the whipping is considered good luck a lot of women nowadays escape the country for a holiday around Easter time to miss the festivities.
Our guide told us that our three day stay in Bratislava was actually quite long (we considered it relatively short) and most tourists only stay for a couple hours (a train stopover) or a day at most. We learned that tourism declined a great deal after ‘Hostel’ (an American horror-thriller film about backpacking travellers) was released in 2005. The film was set in Bratislava; although the writer/director had never been to Slovakia and said no scenes were actually shot in Bratislava. The entire country was outraged with the films release and furious that their country was portrayed as undeveloped, poor, and uncultured suffering from high criminality, war, and prostitution. The director’s response was “Americans do not even know that this country exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them” and he argued that “despite the many films in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ series, people still travel to Texas.” I was honestly surprised that a stupid-scary movie could actually have that much impact on tourism, but I have never watched the movie (and had no idea it was set in Slovakia). In recent years, Bratislava has been making efforts to attempt to increase tourism and it seems to be working, or people are just forgetting about the movie.
Supposedly, the most photographed statue in Bratislava is the “Man at Work” which depicts a man’s head resting on his arms, completely relaxed and definitely not working. The running joke is this is how Slovaks work. He now even has his very own yield sign… a result of being run over twice by delivery trucks (the streets are pedestrian only but certain trucks have permits to drive there).
On a sunny afternoon we walked up to the Bratislava Castle which offers beautiful views of the city and even out to Austria. While the land the castle stands on has been occupied for thousands of years, the current castle is just over a thousand years old and was built under the Kingdom of Hungary. It was used as a military stronghold and was never home to royalty. Throughout the 1800’s the castle was left to deteriorate and it was not until the 1950’s the decision was made to restore it; another massive restoration effort was put into place in 2008 and was only recently finished.
While we first learned about the ‘Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising,’ commonly referred to as the UFO Bridge (due to the flying saucer-shaped structure/restaurant perched on top of the pylon), on our walking tour, we had the best view of it from the Castle. The bridge is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. While the bridge is an amazing structure from a civil engineers standpoint and improved access and traffic, it’s a source of massive discontent with most Slovaks as its construction destroyed a significant section of the Old Town below Bratislava Castle, including nearly all of the Jewish quarter. One positive thing that came out of the construction was the discovery of parts of the historical city walls which were previously thought to have all been destroyed. The portions of wall were unearthed during an archaeological study conducted before construction started.
One last fun tidbit of information (which I previously didn’t know): Slovakia makes excellent wine! While they have hundreds of wineries that make thousands of bottles, almost no one has tried (or heard of) Slovak wine outside of Slovakia; the reason being, very little Slovak wine is exported, save a little to neighboring countries. I always like to try locally produced wine in a new country but often find it a bit daunting; unlike beer where you can easily grab a lager and have a decent idea of what it’s going to taste like, wine in a new country usually means trying grapes you’ve never heard of. However, I decided to give it a go and learned the Slovak word for “dry” which allowed me to pick a couple bottles I was more likely to enjoy (I dislike sweet wines). Since Italy, I’ve had a new appreciation for sparking wine and couldn’t resist buying a bottle in Slovakia. I tried one bottle of red (grape: Frankovka modrá) and a Brut bottle of ‘Quality Sparkling Wine.’ The sparkling wine was so good that I went out and bottle another bottle the next day and if wine didn’t have the side affect of getting me drunk (and maybe not being too healthy when drunk in excess) I would have bought, and drank, a dozen more bottles!