My first trip to Bratislava was in the fall of 2004. Dad and I were shaking in our boots before going to Edirne, fearful that we might repeat our travel woes. I’ve traveled a fair amount since then, and have had my share of journeys that have had all sorts of things go wrong. I’ve started referring to this all as Sven luck. Howard camping trips way back in the distant past of my youth might be the origins of “Sven luck” (perhaps it’s Howard luck?), but I think what really set the bar is the epic Bratislava weekend in 2004. Even seven years later, that weekend is fresh in my memory.
It was originally a trip to scout out Bratislava for the college students who would be coming shortly for the fall semester in Budapest. Was Bratislava a good destination for a weekend away? We also wanted to see it for our own purposes. After all, our favorite Bond film, The Living Daylights, had its opening scene in Bratislava. The beautiful sniper/cellist in the Bratislava opera house! We had to see it.
So dad took care of getting the tickets. Well, what he thought was the tickets. He got two pieces of paper, after all! We found my seat. His piece of paper didn’t have a seat number on it, but we figured his seat was next to mine or something like that. At the Hungarian/Slovak border, the ticket checker asked for the tickets. Where is your ticket? It’s right here! No, this is one ticket. Seat reservation, ticket. Where is your ticket? One ticket. Hmm… What are you doing? You must have ticket! He signaled dad to join him in the hall. You have US dollars? Yes. He made some calculations. $20. Then he said he’d explain the situation to the Slovak border guard, who would also collect from him. The Slovak guard came around, same thing, but his calculations were only $10. The Hungarian screwed over the Slovak border guard.
We had a good laugh, and finally got off the train in Bratislava. Took the tram into the center, and started looking for the hotel we’d looked up on Lonely Planet. We had tried calling them, but the number didn’t work. We finally found the place, right on the banks of the Danube. A great location! We quickly realized why their phone number didn’t work: It was no longer a hotel, but a restaurant! We checked the Lonely Planet again. It was four years old. Blast!
So we started wandering around, looking for another hotel. Lonely Planet didn’t have much to offer us, and we weren’t having good luck. We took the tram a few stops too far and had to wander back a ways to find the center again. Finally, weary and ready to surrender, we stopped in to the giant Danubius Hotel, right at the end of the long square where it runs into the Danube. We checked the price. 300 or 400 euros per night, or something ridiculous. We scoffed. The girl behind the desk sized us up quickly and said: Ah. You need Hotel Ibis. Okay, great, we say. Where is it? Oh, only 10 minutes that way. Relying on our Howard sense of direction to guide us, we set out again. An hour later, we still had not found Hotel Ibis. Now, for those of you who have been to Bratislava, imagine trying to walk around that place for a few hours. There are not that many streets. In order to waste that amount of time, you need to go back and forth a fair number of times. It was miserably hot, and we’d been carrying around our bags for ages. Tails between our legs, we finally tapped on a cab driver’s window and meekly asked him to take pity on us and drive us to Hotel Ibis. What?! Hotel Ibis? No! You walk! What? But where is it? 2 minutes up that road! Defeated, and forlorn, we set out again, this time sure that we’d have eternal rest before we’d be able to set our bags down in Hotel Ibis.
Sure enough, across some busy street, up a flight of stairs and around a corner, there it was. It was not a mirage, it really was Hotel Ibis, its sign beckoning to us like the glow of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. We happily slung off our bags, four hours after rolling into the train station.
We headed out to sit in the old town and get some dinner. We set out for the long square by the opera house to think about that awesome Bond scene. What building do you think Bond took the sniper shot from? Where do you think the tram stop was where they got off? (I later found out that the whole scene was shot in Vienna.)
After our dinner on the square, we wandered around the small winding streets and had some dessert and espresso. It was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, only to be topped by the coffee we had in the Jewish district of Krakow a few months later, at the Klezmer house after visiting Auschwitz with my first ever caffeine deprived headache. Ah, what a fantastic evening of ambiance after such a miserable day (both in Bratislava and in Krakow/Oswiecim). We wound down the evening back at Hotel Ibis, watching the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympic games.
Over the next few days, we explored Bratislava in the way that we Howards do. Long, leisurely breakfasts in the hotel, followed by a cup of espresso in some cafe in the winding streets of the old town, and then the afternoon spent in museums, parks, and more cafes. The castle up on the hill makes for a nice skyline, but when you get up there you realize that, while it’s nice from below, from up above you can’t see it. You can see the little streets of the old town, which is nice, but then you look a bit further and see the vast expanse of communist style concrete flat blocks.
As the castle museum didn’t have much to offer, we scurried back into the narrow alleys and street cafes. The Jewish museum didn’t have much to offer either. It was a small room that informed us that there used to be a larger Jewish population in Bratislava. Now it is very small. We found that Bratislava was meant to be spent wandering aimlessly among the narrow streets and pumping one’s system full of the delicious black beany brew.
Eventually we had to make our way back to Budapest. We checked out of Hotel Ibis and made our way to the tram stop and waited. 45 minutes later, we decided that the trams must not run on Sundays, and had to take a cab to the train station. The train back was uneventful. We both had tickets and there were no bribes necessary. The car was packed, there was a couple making out, and a little Polish lady who insisted on keeping the window closed (the deadly draft!), so it was hot and miserable.
Despite the miseries of getting to Bratislava and finding our hotel, we loved Bratislava, and have always recalled that weekend fondly. Well, except for how miserable it was too. We told the college students to go there, but many of them found it dull and boring, and that there wasn’t anything to do. Ah, but there was good ambiance! we replied. The cafes! The little abandoned squares! The slowness! The hours spent doing nothing in particular, but enjoying a quiet weekend with dozens of espressos on winding cobbled streets!
The Second Trip To Bratislava
The occasion for the second trip to Bratislava was five years later. I had bought a fantastic coffee mug back in 2004 that had lasted quite a while, but eventually the handle cracked. I had to replace it, so why not spend another weekend in Bratislava to get another mug? Fall 2009 found me teaching English in Prague, and younger brother Jay was doing the fall semester study abroad program in Budapest. Older brother Graham visited me for a few weeks at the end of September and into October. We planned to have a weekend where we all got together in Bratislava. We’ve all scattered our separate ways and have only seen each other a few times since then, so that weekend has also entered the Howard history books.
Graham and I took the bus after my lessons, and the three brothers met in the Bratislava bus station in the evening.
The weekend was spent in Howard fashion. Wandering the narrow streets, espresso in the cafes, hours spent hunched over books on park benches, and evenings enjoying our brotherly reunion over beers in the bars of Bratislava.
All went without a hitch until it was time to depart again on Sunday. Jay had to get back to Budapest for his classes, and I had to get back to Prague to teach. Jay had an afternoon bus ticket; Graham and I had evening tickets, but we all headed to the bus station together. We waited and waited for Jay’s bus. We travel by the cheapest bus routes, so we’re used to them not being on time. Orange Ways bus lines is usually about 30-45 minutes late, even though you should probably show up 20 minutes early, because, after all, who knows? They might show up and actually leave on time. We checked the bus times inside, and it looked like Jay’s bus did not exist. How odd, we thought, it would be much better for us if it did exist. Eventually we inspected his ticket. October 3rd, sometime around 3pm. Hold on a minute, this was yesterday! No way, Jay objected, it’s today. What are you talking about? Well, I pulled out my watch, it’s October 4! Jay pulled his watch and said no no, it’s the 3rd. Graham, having no time piece and no responsibilities, didn’t know what day it was, and could only observe. Jay and I were both convinced that we each had the correct date, but then we remembered that September has 30 days in it, and our watches have 31 days on them. Jay had forgotten to move his watch over to the first of October, so he had booked his ticket for the wrong date!
Ach, we Howards and traveling. We sheepishly laughed at the misfortune we perpetually bring on ourselves, found out when the next bus to Budapest was, and bade farewell to Jay. Graham and I walked back to the old town and enjoyed a few last Bratislava beers. There was a gathering of some old men who rode clunker bicycles to the cafe and played chess for a few hours. Eventually we made our way back to Prague.
Bratislava is a great town for sitting, as Graham remarked. And maybe that’s what makes it so nice. There’s not much to do, but the small winding streets are nice, and it’s nice to enjoy a quiet weekend away to sit and relax. There’s not much to do, so you don’t need to feel like you need to rush about. You can just sit and enjoy some beverages and talk literature and philosophy. These are always the cities that I like the best. Bratislava (at least the old town) is one of these places.
My second Bratislava mug also broke. I haven’t been back.