Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Bratislava surprised me. When I studied in Prague years ago my professors told me and my fellow classmates that we should all go hiking in Slovakia, but that we should skip its capital city. Several students ignored their advice and did the exact opposite. They came back with tales of a small city that paled in comparison with its Czech counterpart. They assured the rest of us that we shouldn’t go.
I took their advice, but not my professors’. It was unfortunate, since all of the other recommendations my teachers made were great. Spring break in Croatia was amazing (not least because it wasn’t on the tourist map yet), Slovenia’s Lake Bled was beautiful, and all of the Czech towns our study abroad program took us to were well worth a visit.
It always irked me that I didn’t make it to Slovakia, though. Ever since I moved to London I have meant to go for a weekend of hiking in the mountains, and a few months ago my boyfriend and I finally booked a trip.
Coincidentally, so did two of our friends. The husband is from Slovakia and he and his American wife were going back to spend a long weekend at the same time we were. They generously invited us to join them at their house in a town near the High Tatras in northern Slovakia. Hiking, spas, and lunches in Poland were all on the itinerary.
So was Bratislava. I was a bit worried at first that I wouldn’t like the Slovakian capital, but I went along with the plan. My boyfriend booked us into the new Sheraton Bratislava for the first night of our stay, and it proved a great introduction to the city. The hotel was beautiful and our Platinum status got us an upgrade to a great junior suite on the top floor.
We settled into the room and enjoyed the chocolate-covered fruit the hotel brought to us as a gift. After that it was time to meet our friends for a drink in Bratislava’s sparkling new waterfront development, Eurovea. A shopping mall, a new national theater, grand plazas, waterfront restaurants, and a riverfront park were all part of the area’s appeal.
Our Slovakian friend told us that the Irish developed Eurovea as a bet that the city would be the next Dublin economically. Four car companies had recently opened factories near Bratislava, the city was business-friendly, and per capita GDP had overtaken that of Barcelona. Bratislava was on the rise, and Eurovea reflected it.
After a drink at one of the shiny new cafes on the Danube we walked along a riverside path and made our way to the old town. Pedestrianized streets were full of lively bars and restaurants. The buildings in the old town had beautiful historic facades, and the quirky sculptures along the streets were reminiscent of David Cerny’s art in Prague.
We settled in at an open-air bar for a drink before heading back to the hotel for the night. It was still warm outside at 1am, and even warmer when we woke up in the morning. After breakfast at the hotel we met up with our friends to do some more sightseeing.
Our first stop was at the castle in Bratislava. Sitting on the city’s highest hill, the newly-renovated castle is visible from everywhere in the capital. Likewise, the views from the castle walls allowed us to see the entire city and along the Danube into Austria.
One of the things we could see from the castle was a Soviet-era bridge with a space-age pod on top. Our friend explained that locals call it the UFO, and that it was home to a good restaurant. We were sold.
Lunch at the UFO was a formal affair. Waiters with white gloves served us kangaroo goulash, partridge filets with gratin dauphinoise, and Thai coconut soup with prawns. As we ate, we gazed across the river to the castle and Bratislava’s old town. It was a very enjoyable lunch. Well, except for the bottle of water that cost 17 euros. Ouch.
After lunch we walked through the old town to pick up our friends’ car. They drove us back to the sparkling new airport to pick up our rental car, and then the four of us were off to their house in northern Slovakia for the rest of the weekend.
Excited as I was to go hiking in the mountains and experience the Slovakian spas, I felt a twinge of sadness upon leaving Bratislava. I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable our time there was, and I was grateful to our friends for not only showing us around but also putting the city on the itinerary. It would have been a shame to miss out on what is perhaps the most underrated city in Europe. To be continued…