This day last week I was in the middle of a 48-hour stay in the city of Bratislava, a pitt-stop on the way to Sziget music festival in Budapest (more on that in the next post!).
As a ginger who hasn’t been on a proper sun holiday since the cringy days of family package deals to Majorca where any hotel without a kids’ club wasn’t worth batting my glitter-glued eyelashes together at, I’ll admit I may have slightly underestimated the European heat – this was only the beginning of my knowledge of Slovakia proving itself to be extremely limited. The heat struck like a wall of dead, sweaty air when you walk into a heavily populated gym, and I immediately thanked myself for having left my warm jacket at home.
After stumbling our way through the barrier of sweat, hastily-applied suncream, and unhelpful Slovakian bus drivers, we eventually made it to the tram station which would take us in the direction of our hostel. What I hadn’t anticipated was the large amount of dodgy-looking characters who roamed the streets – drunks, cripples, barely-clothed scrawny faces who revelled in approaching young unaccompanied travellers at the stations. I’m not saying it was extremely dangerous, just slightly less civilised and more suburban than many of the other European cities I’ve visited – and this was only in the first few hours or so. Still, we had to avert our gaze as a man covered in dried blood boarded the tram and sat staring at us, making no obvious inclination or cry for help, and seemingly oblivious to the extremity of his unknown injuries.
On finding our hostel (Patio Hostel, Bratislava), a wave of relief swept over me at being briefly removed from the sun’s preying rays, and also at finally being able to remove our backpacks. Shoulders aching, we attended a welcome BBQ downstairs in the garden, accompanied by several hen and stag parties, complete with inflatable and edible items of memorabilia…apparantly Bratislava is a serious hotspot for European pre-nuptial celebrations, who knew!
After locating the local Tesco and stocking up on some essentials, we went wandering in search of ‘Rock OK’ , a lively and dimly-lit underground bar, advertised as the starting point of a nightly pub crawl aimed at integrating the many socially-awkward and party-seeking backpackers who pass through the city during the Summer months. (Rock OK)
Considering it was a Saturday night, the streets were fairly quiet and we found ourselves wondering did such a pub crawl even exist. The streets were buckled under roadworks, with cones, railings, and upturned earth blocking off the streets which Google Maps had set out ahead of us. I got the impression that the entire city was very much a work-in-progress, as the roadworks were central to much of the scenery and background of the busiest areas we encountered.
After a rather sexist drink allowance of ‘Free glasses of beer, or wine for the women’, we got talking to our fellow travellers in the Rock Bar, and did our best to mingle – I’ve found that in situations such as these it is one of the best things you can do to be open, friendly and inviting – we were all in the same boat, after all, and so there was no point in being shy.
Many of the other travellers, some from Spain, New Zealand, England, and Italy, to name but a few, were also stopping off in Bratislava on their way down to Sziget, so a common topic of conversation was easily established.
Making friends with a group of Australians proved to be one of the highlights of the night, as well as typically rejoicing together as we realised there were two other Irish lads on the crawl – although unfortunately they lived up to the ‘drunken Irish’ label the other nationalities muttered to one another. We didn’t stay for the entire crawl however, as after the third ‘pub’ proved to be more of a nightclub than anything else, we decided it was time to navigate our way back through the dilapidated streets, sleeping JCBs and makeshift gravel footpaths.
After wonderful cold showers and a brief annoying realisation that someone in the hostel downstairs had stolen and eaten the bread we’d bought, we set out for a day of exploration in the city. We decided to decline the appeal of a walking-tour of the city purely because of the heat, our timeframe, and also because we much preferred the idea of discovering things independent of tour guides and plans.
Using some of the roadworks as points of reference, we meandered down the main streets which proved a lot busier during the daytime, a large quarter of the city around the church and fountain being pedestrianised to accommodate travellers. The Old Town proved to be extremely inviting, the ‘Alstadt’ area full of great picture opportunities, innumerable bars, cafes and restaurants that looked good enough to stay in all day. The former Palace of the Hungarian Estates surrounded by the many little cobbled streets proved extremely enjoyable to wander about, despite the midday heat!
We voted in favour of a Pad Thai style lunch instead of sampling some of the local cuisine, and were thoroughly impressed by the service and food of The Green Buddha, close to the main square.
After impulse-buying another pair of ‘Uganda-pants’, as I call them, (my first ever pair having been purchased in Uganda) in one of the many little craft shops along the street, we took the 83 bus to the end of the line, and got off at Temantínska, and followed the beach-ready stream of locals and tourists alike down a short distance to Drazdiak Lake. This freshwater lake was the first experience I’ve had of an inland lake in Europe, and it didn’t disappoint! Although there were hoards of overly-exposed sun-worshippers and naked children throwing rocks at the (extremely patient) swans, the atmosphere and simplicity of the place really appealed to me. We secured ourselves a beer after hopping the language barrier of the bar, and for the first time since the trip had started we felt really at ease as we chilled in the sun (or in my case, the shade and beneath a light throw cardigan).
That evening we wandered back through the city and had an early night, as the prospect of a busy day navigating our way to Budapest loomed ahead of us.