Flying into Bratislava on Easter Tuesday, there was that first sparkling of Spring as I clambered aboard the Botel Dunajsky Pivovar. A fleeting caress, time enough for a glass of wine on my balcony a few feet above the surging Danube. Winter will return. It’s written on the wind.
Late afternoon I cross over to the city by way of the New Bridge. The pedestrian way is a concrete tube with a view downriver. The quietly impressive St. Martin’s Cathedral anchors the far bank. The old medieval city is piled on the rising hill beyond, the gleaming white Castle further off to the west. In between, where once the city walls stood, a motorway pushes its way over the bridge.
Leaves are out along Hvievdoslavovo Namesti, speckling the elegant esplanade leading from the river to the National Theatre. At Bar 17, I enjoy the pleasure of sunlight glinting on my glass of Zlaty Bazant. At 1.90 a pop, all’s well in heaven. As dusk and clouds gather, a demonstration musters. There’s revolution in the air. Or perhaps rain. The first specks and umbrellas are unfurled. There’s something delirious about this, stepping into a Renoir painting, or perhaps a Russian novel. Who can tell?
The Danube is the defining river of Western civilisation. The border of empire, dividing Roman from Celt and Goth. Bulwark against the Barbarian, until they crossed in their tens of thousands and ushered in a new age. Highway of Central Europe, carrying art and armies, heroes and villains, east and west. Bratislava was once the focus of Empire, the capital of Hungary from 1536 to 1783. Otherwise, something of a provincial outpost, sandwiched between Budapest, mighty capital of the Magyars, and the Hapsburg megacity Vienna. With a population of half a million, it’s sizeable enough, flowering further in Summer with a tourist influx, the Old Town Square thronged with al fresco diners, or loungers by the fountain. But mid-April is unseasonably cold.
Wednesday, and snow slants in from the west, river and atmosphere sweeping in unison through the city. I force myself along the windswept park, across the bridge and into the city. The old town is rendered picturesque. I could inscribe season’s greetings with my breath on the view of St. Martin’s as two mounted police exit the plaza into the maze of winding streets. Outdoor seating is being packed away for another time.
If I always make a resolution to avoid Irish Bars abroad, I inevitably break it. The Dubliner franchise is here and very good it is too. I watch the snow through mullioned windows. The interior is woody and warm, the fish and chips generous and genuine. Needs must, I become a regular. Excellent floor service, with a special mention for Matthew.
Further on, a Scottish Bar: The Loch Ness. A rather nebulous concept, I’d have thought. Service and style are more rudimentary, but it’s cosy and quiet. Mind you, the pint costs nearly three euro. Exactly three euro, since I didn’t receive my ten cent back. Half Scottish myself, I blend.
Cold, clear weather on Thursday presents the opportunity to explore Bratislava Castle. High above the city, it dates to the eleventh century, becoming a baroque palace in the reign of Maria Theresa. Extensively renovated in the fifties. Impressive, stark and forbidding, it dares entry. I wander through empty corridors and white stairs. Now I’m in an Escher graphic, climbing, descending, getting nowhere. There is an extensive though unremarkable art collection. The history is concise and well represented.
The few visitors give an eerie verisimilitude to the experience. I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls, indeed. I climb to the restaurant upstairs. Curiously, they’ve stopped serving the advertised food. Lunchtime in a near empty castle, and no food in the restaurant. Desiccated cake is offered and refused. I take my painkillers neat, with coffee.
Below the Castle, the old Jewish quarter lay just outside the city walls. The walls themselves are reached by a bridge over the motorway. An impressive section remains along the western edge, near St Martin’s. This part of town really is old and dilapidated, retaining that Gothic charm of desertion, a mottled mirror to forgotten pasts; medieval, early modern and recent. Being communist block until recently, there’s the sense of a hidden city, a reluctant budding only now preparing to display.
Traversing the Old Town doesn’t take long. Venturska Michalska rises arrow-straight to St Michael’s Gate, dating to the fourteenth century. The baroque tower dominates the vista. Constructed in the eighteenth century and inscribed to Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress whose coronation as Queen of Hungary in 1741 was in St.Martin’s.
Crossing the shade of the barbican, I enter the New Town within veils of rain and melancholia. Apartment living, trams traversing, but less by way of welcome. Takes time to get to know such places. I circle about the Church of St. Elizabeth, dubbed the Blue Church. I love blue. This is practically a piece of Wedgewood in a quiet enclave. Nearby a park, a naked female statue glaring boldly across the deserted green.
At Berlinska I suffer the worst travesty of food so far. Pulled turkey in a bag with alleged Risotto – baby food mush in tepid milk, and raw cabbage claiming to be coleslaw. I eat the turkey if only that the empty bag may prove useful. Painkillers with coffee again.
At the end of the day, I eat on the boat. Tasty though tiny. Man I’m going to eat when I get home. What with the painkillers and the drink, it seems a good idea to take my Patron Beer on deck and spark up a cheroot. A stiff icy wind whipping over the river only takes a minute to penetrate my buzz. By which stage I am engaged in lively conversation with Sam and Tomas. Sam, I think, has worked in London and speaks good English. Tomas is more effervescent, a charming rascal one would follow into revolution. Whatever I am speaking stems from me being wired to the moon. Inside, I struggle to escape their offers of shared food, which, I must say, looks exceptionally good and plentiful. I arise early tomorrow. The boat may be securely moored, but I sway like a sailor, sauntering back to my cabin.
A fine coda to Bratislava is to sail up the Danube. I’m flying home from Vienna, so I’ve booked the LOD catamaran that takes a hundred minutes to reach the Austrian capital. What an impressive thoroughfare: commercial and pleasure vessels pulling along, our catamaran zigzagging through the traffic. We pass Devin Castle, guarding three frontiers where the Danube meets the Morava. All that remains is surreal melted stone ruin atop a hill, with a quaint village in its lea.
We stop for ten minutes entering the locks outside Vienna. Finally we float into the city, its sense of size emphasised by my brief stay in Bratislava. I trek to the underground and take three stops to Stephansplatz. I’m happy of the help of Viennese as I grapple with the graphics of the underground map, panicking slightly. I walk to my rail connection by way of the Ringstrasse in the caress of the midday sun – Spring has sprung.