Bratislava

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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.

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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?

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Brat demo 2The 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.

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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.

Brat DubFurther 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.

   IMG_2103Cold, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Vienna

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Stephens Dom

Vienna can seem like being lost in heaven. So much perfection, art and architecture at its most opulent and grand. There are times though, when you need an angel. I’m prone to cutting corners, just that bit off kilter. On such occasions the city orbits with bewildering intensity, an electron cloud of people, trams and buildings without horizon. I should have come for longer. I should have brought an angel.

I arrive in a heatwave in September. I am carrying Boris (my leather jacket) because my apartment is not secure and Boris holds my passport and camera, my pens and stuff. And besides, I’m weird like that. It insults cities such as Vienna to swan around in shorts and vests. Find a beach! One must look one’s best.

Vienna hugs a bend in the Danube river. The mighty Danube, famously un-blue, is generated by a leak from a faulty faucet in Bavaria, before meandering through mountains and past cartoon palaces to become the highway of central Europe. The river does not actually flow through the centre of the city. A slender offshoot, the Danube Canal, outlines the northern arc of the city centre. Historically, Europe’s super-highway, you can float downstream to Bratislava, Budapest and the ocean.

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The Opera House on the Ringstrasse

Vienna finds itself at the focus of Europe. Its old city walls converted into the Ringstrasse, a grandiose avenue that delineates the city centre south of the Danube Canal. Freud’s morning constitutional was taken along the throbbing thoroughfare. Grand public buildings and palatial houses line its extent. As the Main Street of empire the imperial buildings are emphasised , arrayed in formal parkland on the south-western radial.

Amongst the many jewels in this crown is the Kunsthistorische museum. The spectacular entrance staircase leads the eyes up to The Apotheosis of the Renaissance, a Belle Epoque imagining by Hungarian artist Munkacsy. The spheres of art history and the heavenly realm merge in a celestial depiction of the glories of the Renaissance. Gustav Klimt peeps mischievously out, supplying Egyptian and Greek goddesses for support.

   

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Breughel’s Hunters 

I cool my heels in front of Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow. We had a small copy of this painting in my childhood home. It is astonishing how an almost trivial ornament can evoke such a profound attachment with the real thing. Herself was overcome by Monet’s Impression Sunrise in the Thyssen Bornemisza (Madrid), as if the gallery knew she was coming and prepared a special gift. I knew Breughel’s masterpiece would be here, and more besides, but was not prepared for the shock of seeing it. I sat a long time before the real thing. I was in the landscape whereas, as a boy, I had only a postcard of it. The static, permanent power of the composition enthralls. It is a story of human endeavour and disappointment; keep on keeping on is its constant thread. With its bold line and vivid contrasts the painting looks modern. Perhaps timeless is the word.

There’s so much more. Vienna was the centre of Europe’s cultural web. Dutch masters with their fragile hues and robust folk, Italians with burning colour and burnished souls. Titian, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Velazquez line the corridors and rooms, all hawking their wares for our attention. Such wonders under one roof. I could stay forever and feel as if I was never indoors.

Leaving the giddy globe for the pale imitation of life without, there are still more options to consider. The Museum Quarter is nearby, and all the pleasures it implies. Still, why wallow in excess? A feast is enough for know and I seek shelter from the heat in a sidewalk bar. I am sweating again. I occupy a high table and wrap myself slowly around a tall glass. Enough art for a day, I tell myself. I need to assimilate it all.

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Schmetterling Haus

Offbeat, and off kilter, I head back across the Ringstrasse. Passing through the Burggarten  I am taken by the elegance of the glasshouse and the words of a friend brush my cheek. Of all the must-dos of Vienna this was the most idiosyncratic. Visit the Schmetterling Haus, stand in the shimmering heat of a greenhouse and let giant insects land on you. It is weird that this oasis, out of the sun, is actually hotter. Yet, I had hardly taken two steps in than I was filled with elation. The glass confines form a bubble in infinity, illuminating one manifestation of flora and fauna at this intersection in space time. Butterflies in their team colours flutter unconcerned past us brief escapees from the physical dimension. Oh, if you want a touch of heaven, visit the butterfly house, angels supplied.    

From my base at the Kunsthaus, it’s a pleasant walk of urban variety by way of Unterviaductgasse, or Oberviaductgasse even, through my local square, Radetzkyplatz, and on to Wien Mitte, with its thronged shopping centre, its convenience bars and cafes, the tabac shop with its spectacularly rude service. Across the Wien River lies the actual city centre, the Inner Stadt, the old city within the Ringstrasse. This is the place for aimless meandering through medievel streets, being pleasantly lost in a strange place. The spire of Stephens Dom is at its centre. Exuberantly gothic, the church bears the marks of centuries of adjustment. Age radiates from it, modernity encroaches. There isn’t really a good point to sit and take it in. The square is cramped and crammed, the few outdoor bars crummy.  You can go up the spire to see all of Vienna, and maybe heaven too. I’m only going to see so much in three days on the ground.

  

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Stadpark, along the Wien River

Along the linear Stadtpark, I set out on a quiet morning all the way to the Belvedere. Clipped and coiffured gardens slope upwards in the shimmering heat, the Upper Belvedere a toy palace in the distance. The main attraction is Klimt’s golden girls, seductive capsules of beauty and love. The Kiss grows more iconic by the day. It is the canvas where we want to be, loving and loved, flushed in the afterglow of it all, naked and golden. In a way that is both sensible and comic, the museum, while prohibiting photographs, has provided a selfie station where tourists can immortalise themselves before a life-size print. Better, I think, to put yourself within the painting.

   

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Vienna from the Upper Belvedere

I am much taken too with David’s depiction of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. A vivid flash of a personal force of history if ever there was. Less impressive is the baleful manifestation of the curse of the curator. If you must push inept contemporary work, best keep it amongst its own. The view from the chapel balcony at the end of my visit would have been better left unseen. This crucifixion is a dismal work. It compares unfavourably with Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove which exhalted the spirit. Whereas this does not.

  

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and now for a pint

Beyond the gardens, Vienna beckons, a burnished mirage of domes and spires. The journey downhill is less arduous, though shade still eludes me. The clipped flora is so weird I feel I have been spirited, Alice like, to some imaginary world. Perhaps I am hallucinating in the heat, the surplus of art in my blood. Trams pass on the street where afternoon shade begins to creep from the buildings. There is a gap I noticed earlier. Time for a welcome beer in a shaded courtyard. Dappled shadows dance beneath the trees, brown timbered seating awaits, metal fittings of the bar glow and beckon. A traditionally clad dame welcomes me. Blond and tanned, clad in green, she smiles and takes my order. The feeling of fantasy persists. But then, where else would you find an angel, but in heaven?