Travel Report: Visit Bratislava.
Visit Bratislava. Cover photo courtesy of Nate Robert.
September 2002-May 2003. Of all the places I’ve lived across the world, no other destination occupies such a romanticised space in my mind as that of Bratislava. I was just 24 years old when I arrived in the Slovak capital and it was my first time living in a foreign country with complete independence. I recall the city’s gritty magic captivating me right on day one during the drive from the airport to my new apartment. In fact, it literally felt like I’d been dropped into some gargantuan Soviet bloc jungle. For more on these first impressions, check out my short story Up on The Hill.
I came to Bratislava on a teaching contract with The Caledonian School, one of the city’s best known language institutes located on Obchodna Street. The Caledonian offered all kinds of courses, from social English at the school itself, to in-house business classes at companies such as Philip Morris and the bank Slovenská sporiteľňa. I took the above photo one desolate October morning before a hellishly early morning class.
Us teachers used to congregate for a post-class breakfast at McDonald’s, where an Englishman called Roger was the manager. A few years after I left the city, International House took over The Caledonian and subsequently moved the school into a new building at Nám SNP 14. For more on my experiences teaching here, have a read of my short story Minxology.
The school placed me in a complimentary three bedroom apartment at the top of a giant hill in a neighbourhood called Dhle Diely. It was a simultaneously ugly and beautiful concrete jungle and my apartment had quite the view of it.
Life was a bit rough and ready up on the hill, but we had everything we needed. There were a couple of local stores for everyday supplies and a tram line that ran directly into the city centre in just twelve minutes. About halfway down the hill there was a big supermarket, Delvita, and an Italian restaurant bar called Alfredo’s that had a pool table.
I shared the apartment with Rich, a sunny Californian from San Francisco and Jon, a Jeff Goldblum lookalike from Nashville. I have so many memories from our nine months living together. Above all, I fondly remember the epic house party we threw when Jon and I debuted our silly, homemade movie documenting our time in Slovakia. For more on this, dive into my short story The Slovak Files.
That Bratislava year was an amazing time for people, an aligning of the social stars if you will. One of our earliest getting to know each other activities took place at the national football arena, Pasienky Stadium. There was Sladjana, a mysterious Canadian-Serb, and Jesse and Caroline from Washington State. Moreover, Ben (far right) from Doncaster became a close ally and Irish Mike (top row centre) and I eventually wrote a screenplay together.
For those of us genuinely interested in the football, it was a disappointing experience. The game was unspeakably dull, the stadium three quarters empty and the weather equally miserable. Hence we just used the occasion to hear each other’s backstories and chat about our travel plans. Looking back, it was a cool experience to be the only foreigners in the crowd. And of course we did our best to cheer on the home team, despite our general apathy.
As a sporting spectacle, I much preferred our visits to Zimny Stadium to watch Bratislava’s ice hockey team, HC Slovan. Believe it or not, Slovakia were the world Ice Hockey Champions that year! Thus there was a great deal of buzz around the sport and the stadium was packed to the rafters on both occasions.
Zimny Stadium dates back to 1940. At full capacity it holds just over ten thousand people and the atmosphere can get electric! Especially when Bratislava are playing hated rivals Kosice, as they did for my first match.
These days the stadium is better known as The Ondrej Nepela Arena, named in honour of the Slovak Olympic figure skating champion Ondrej Nepela. A much loved Slovak sportsman, Nepela died aged just 38 following a battle with cancer.
As ugly and charmless as large swathes of Bratislava were, we all loved Stare Mesto, the city’s small but charming old town. This is the city’s pretty historical centre, packed with cobbled squares, notable townhouses, artsy cafes and traditional restaurants. I took the above photo in December 2002 during a stroll around the cosy Christmas Market.
My favourite part of a walk around Bratislava’s old town was its collection of cute statues. This one stands in honour of Ignac Lamar, a renowned Bratislava vagrant. Famously friendly and courteous, he was a regular fixture in the old town for decades until his death in 1967.
At the height of his popularity, Lamar would stroll around in his tails and top hat, greeting everyone he passed. Furthermore, he had an eye for the ladies and never gave up an opportunity to kiss a woman’s hand. From time to time, local businesses made sure to support him with free food and occasional cleaning work.
Another of the old town’s statues is Man At Work. Unlike Lamar, this guy has a reputation as a bit of a scoundrel. After all, he is clearly not working but rather slacking off. And could it be that he is using his street-level position to peer up ladies skirts? The locals call him Čumil, which translates as The Watcher. The Slovak sculptor Viktor Hulik created him in the mid 1990s at a time when many of these fun, down to earth statues began appearing across the old town.
Paparazzi was one of Bratislava’s swankiest eateries. This statue, commissioned by the restaurant itself, was another popular old town landmark. A sneaky pap grabbing a shot of someone from the corner of the building. He stood right outside the restaurant for years, but sadly disappeared sometime after it closed down. The last I heard, the sculpture was on show at the UFO Tower Restaurant & Bar atop Nový most Bridge. For a broader look at Bratislava’s weird and wonderful statues, take a peek at this cool article from Mixing Your Passports.
If local authorities ever consider adding another statue to the mix, I hope somebody somewhere pushes the case for this colourful newspaper vendor. Back in 2002-2003, barely a day went by without us seeing or indeed hearing him.
“dobrý deeeeeeeeň” (hello/good day) he’d screech, from his various stations around the old town. With no idea of his actual name, us teachers simply called him The Dobry Den Man. I’m not sure what became of him, but part of me hopes he’s still there doing his thing. And that people recognise him for the institution he is.
Bratislava wasn’t exactly blessed with sights, but I was nevertheless fascinated by the field trips I took. Take Bratislava Castle for example, quite a gruesome spectacle back in those days. Looming on a hill overlooking the old town, it was quite literally like something out of a Stephen King novel. Dripping with history, it dates back to the Stone Age and has been home to The Celts, The Slavs and great historical figures such as the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg and the great Hapsburg ruler Maria Theresa.
Looks like the castle had a huge makeover since I left the city. Today it hosts guided tours, cultural events, theatre performances, concerts and even government meetings and receptions for foreign dignitaries. For more on these, along with opening times and ticket prices, head to visitbratislava.com.
Just ten kilometres west of the city centre, Bratislava boasts another fortress, Devin Castle. Perched atop a crag overlooking The Danube, this charming complex of ruins was a key stronghold for The Great Moravian Empire back in the 9th century. I visited one wintry afternoon in late 2002 with my Canadian friend, Carol Ann.
Devin Castle features an exhibition telling its story from the 13th century onwards. Above all though, a visit here is chiefly about those sweeping river views.
While you’re immersing yourself in Slovak History, another key Bratislava sight is of course The National Museum. I’ve been told that the place is unrecognisable from the tatty, ramshackle centre I toured in the spring of 2003.
The National Museum.
It would be amazing to come back and see how it looks after its multi-million Euro refurbishment. The National Museum is now responsible for 23 specialised museums and monuments across the country. This is its main exhibition centre, which stands on a handsome square on Vajanské nábrežie, a leafy riverfront street.
Towards the end my contract, sometime in May 2003, everyone at The Caledonian gathered for a Saturday barbecue at Koliba. This green, peaceful locality sits at the foothills of The Little Carpathians and is part of Bratislava Forest Park.
I remember it being one of the first truly lovely afternoons after what had been a long and hard Slovak winter. T-shirts replaced coats, sunglasses were brought back from exile and we all raided Delvita for bags of beer, soft drinks, sausages, hamburgers, crisps and nuts. I still consider it something of a tragedy that this was the only time I came to the forest. Next time…
When I think back over those Brata days, I invariably recall the legendary house parties and our many nights out across the city. Our favourite drinking establishment was The Slovak Pub on Obchodna Street. Hugely atmospheric, this long, narrow pub was all about low lighting, dark wood and grumpy waiters.
Elsewhere, there’s a huge fireplace, a sculpture or two and portraits of Slovak National heroes hanging on the walls. They even have a few themed sections, such as the brilliant Janosik’s Room. Juraj Janosik was an infamous highwayman of the early 1700s who, Robin Hood style, stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
The Slovak Pub.
We came to The Slovak Pub for the cheap beer and traditional Slovak dishes. Oh, and due to the fact that it was one of the few places in town where thirty of us could comfortably gather. On reflection, I think some of the staff here despised us. In any case, I have nothing but fond memories and have lost count of how many bowls of ghoulish I devoured within The Slovak Pub’s hallowed walls. Trust me, it was a lot.
Another firm favourite was The Dubliner, an Irish Pub deep in the heart of the old town. For a while, we came here just about every Friday night for beers, nachos and karaoke.
One night Rich and I stood up and belted out a flawed but highly passionate version of The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down. We definitely stood out from the sea of polished singers, most of whom took themselves far too seriously. Plus every damn one of them seemed to sing Angels by Robbie Williams. In fact, so encouraged were we by the response, Rich and I ended up singing it most Fridays. For more on those long ago nights at The Dubliner, take a look at my short story Blood In The Lobby.
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