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Driving through Slovakia on our way to Vienna

It was a long bus day, and we ended up somewhere we hadn’t really thought we would go on this trip. Yesterday the laptop all but packed up, that funny clicking noise persisted, and the battery no longer charges up. So we called various Sony numbers, only to be told it was now an old model (even though it was less than two years old) and no longer supported. We made more calls in the morning to Sony in Vienna, which seemed to be the nearest and most obvious place to head for. We had pondered a little about what to do – leave it until we got back to the UK, or take time out from our trip to get it fixed now? In the end we decided on the course for Vienna, to see if they could at least establish what was wrong in the first place.

At breakfast we met Jeff again, and said bye to him. We left Zakopane and the Tatras behind and drove north and then turned west, towards the Slovakian border, to pick up the main road to Bratislava, and Vienna beyond. In Poland it was slow going, with the usual Polish roads, traffic and some road works, but mostly just due to the fact that we passed through so many little villages where we had to drop our speed, from a “blistering” 70km/h down to 40km/h. So we trundled along and crossed back into Slovakia. The Slovakian part of the drive was similar, but with different scenery and we passed through some little Slovakian towns, with lines of large wooden and stone houses, providing pleasing perspectives along the road. In one village I just caught a glimpse of three older women with their heads covered in colourful shawls, as they stood talking in front of a large dark wood log cabin/house, with flowers and an apple tree in the garden in front. It was a little sight, past in a flash, that encapsulated the rural part of Slovakia.

For convenience on this occasion we took the main roads and the motorway. We stopped at a service station, rather basic but clean. Actually, the first one was brand-new and part of a large truck stop complex, but it had no coffee and the next one we stopped at a just a rest stop with a cafeteria, where we stopped for a drink and a “wurst”. We had to laugh at the brand names of the sanitary equipment: the toilet roll dispenser was “Big Willy”, and the air freshener was “Freddy Fresh”. A large part of the final drive towards Bratislava was through a flat agricultural landscape with massive fields of sunflowers just past their best by the looks of it, but still a colourful sight.

We bypassed Bratislava, and made our way through the various junctions to continue towards Vienna. We did spot that Bratislava’s outskirts were dominated by a massive development of new apartment blocks. We queued for the border crossing, but not too long, and then we were in Austria, “back” in the west for a short while. It was noticeable that everything was neat and tidy. We drove through tidy little villages with not a bit of peeling plaster in sight. We also drove through a flat agricultural landscape with a massive farm of wind turbines that stretch along the horizon, from near to far. Here, too, the occasional field of sunflowers. We entered Vienna along the busy motorways of a large modern western city, and headed for the area near the Sony service centre on the Favoritenstrasse, a little to the south of the city centre. After a few attempts we got lucky with the charming, but not very cheap, Best Western Beethoven hotel, which seemed just the sort of place we would have picked for a city break, elegant and smart but still intimate and on a small scale. We plonked in our room for a little while and later went out for dinner. In fact we ended up at the very nearby Naschmarkt, with its stalls, permanent ones. Many, most of them, were cafés and convivial little restaurants, and the customers seemed to consist mainly of locals, i.e. well-heeled Viennese (there doesn’t appear to be any other kind!) We picked one of the café/restaurants and sat outside and had a tasty simple meal. Fantastic surroundings. It almost felt like “home”, to a pair of former city slickers.

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No stretch limo's here, transport in Vienna is altogether more refined and has pink carriages instead!
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Heroic statues.
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More statues …
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That's more like it, a cosy bar!

It was quite exciting to wake up here in Vienna, an unexpected addition to our itinerary. The breakfast room was, like everything else, smart and elegant, and still somehow felt “warm” and intimate. Maybe it was a little taster of the Viennese coffee-rooms. We had a tasty breakfast and then went for our errand of the day, to get the laptop sorted. We walked to the Sony Centre which was nearby. It didn’t look like the high-tech Sony Vaio place I had anticipated. Old models of laptops on display, spray-painted wall decorations, and when the guy said they would just take a look at the laptop and open it up and suggested the solution might be a case of “soldering some bits” I wasn’t too keen to leave our laptop in their care. We took it back to the hotel and did a backup, which took a little over an hour. In the meantime I had called another place, “AVMS”, which turned out to be the proper Sony Service Centre, on an industrial estate south of town, and now we drove out there to see whether they might be a better option. AVMS was a much better setup and we felt more confident leaving the laptop with them.

With a bit of luck it should be fixed by Friday, and so we changed our plans to visit Bratislava this week, and return to Vienna by the end of the week to collect our laptop and then carry on to Hungary. We drove back to the city and tried to extend our stay at the Beethoven but their rate was now much higher, so instead we ended up swapping for another Best Western, which was even closer to the centre and a “Premier” one at that. Just goes to show what a black art hotel pricing is. We completed the hotel swap, checking out, driving to the nearby Römischer Kaiser Best Western, checking in there. This was another charming and elegant affair, perfect for romantic city breaks. The bathroom had Versace tiles!

Then we finally managed to go out and play. There was still a good part of the day left and we fancied a walking tour, saving museums and more in-depth sights for our return visit later. We walked to tourist information first, nearby, near the Sacher hotel (of sacher torte fame), where, with Austrian efficiency and courtesy we were provided with details of a walking tour, as well as answers to all our other questions. The next stop was the British bookshop (tourist info had given us directions for) to buy the Lonely Planet for Vienna. This took us through some of the Viennese streets of the centre, with tall, elegant city buildings, churches, etc. Vienna just felt so easy to get to grips with, safe, beautiful and yet alive and active, not at all like a museum piece or stuck in the past. With our Lonely Planet we first went in search of a coffee opportunity, to peruse the list of the highlights, and also check LP’s own version of a walking tour. On the Neue Markt square we picked on of the cafés, just in time as not a few minutes later it started to rain moderately.

We had our first Viennese coffee and cake, soaking up the Viennese atmosphere. We picked up the walking tour from here, and visited the Kaisersgruft, below a rather ordinary church (by Viennese standards) on the square. The church itself was nothing extraordinary, but below it was the collective tomb of the Habsburgs, with a crypt containing over a hundred coffins, sarcophagi of varying degrees elaborateness and Baroque styling. It wasn’t exactly peaceful though, with sounds of heavy drilling coming from one of the rooms where work was being done, and its occupant, Franz Joseph II, probably the main Habsburg emperor, had temporarily been moved to another room. We carried on following the LP walking tour, which took us past, and into, some interesting sights, large and small. The included the ornate Art Nouveau interior stairwell and courtyard of a building, and an old withered tree trunk full of medieval nails, now behind a glass/perspex shield (medieval traders, carpenters, would hammer a nail in it before setting off on a trip to ensure a safe return home). It certainly didn’t seem to be a sight on the main tourist trail and was a nice little find by LP. We also visited the magnificent Stephansdom with its decoratively tiled roof. Inside it was difficult to see things close up, at least not without paying for a guide or tour, which we didn’t fancy. On leaving the church we noticed the two American business types who immediately got on their blackberries to check proposals or whatever. I joked to Ness that they were probably emailing each other!

In the “short” walking tour we managed to see a lot of Vienna and it looked stunning, beautiful, a wealth of sights. Other hits we saw/did were a stop at Demel’s Café, the “other” party in the sachertorte wars, where we had another coffee and a very rich slice of cake. The Art Nouveau stylish public toilets by Adolf Loos – we went inside the separate entrances and I took pictures of the gents side. We walked through the museumsquartier, through ornate and imposing courtyards. These really made you think that Buck House and all the splendour of the British Empire weren’t quite a match for the incredible Habsburg riches. Another gap in our knowledge of history that we’ll try to plug with snippets from LP and elsewhere. It would be hard to describe the sights more accurately – best to check the pictures!

To wrap it up, we had a lovely meander around part of the centre of Vienna, stopping here and there, such as at the old Roman ruins, consisting of a few deep walls which are left, uncovered by chance, and a few examples of Jugendstil buildings, and so on. We ended up by the very large opera house, a centre for “high” music in this city that seems completely suffused with it. We finished our tour by the early evening and rather than return to the hotel we decided to stay out for dinner. First we tried to find the LP recommended Kleines Café. Unfortunately it was shut. Nearby Immervoll looked convivial but we felt that in our travellers clothes we wouldn’t really fit in with the crowd of smartly dressed city dwellers. In London this would have been exactly the sort of place we would have ended up at. We hunted around for a little longer and couldn’t resist the American Bar, a little gem, also by Loos, of toilets fame, fantastically designed in an unusual style (Art Nouveau/Jugendstil?) Anyway, we got lucky – the bar staff took pity on us and let us have the reserved table at the front inside – it had only been booked from 10 until 10.30, so it was ok as long as we left before then. It was a snug, smart, very different, and very unusual bar, and of course we had to have cocktails. A little discovery.

We managed to drag ourselves away before getting too settled in and looking around for a simple eatery we came up trumps. After rejecting the “typical” heuriger, Austrian wine bars that do some food, a very folkloristic setup, and the touristic tapas and posh nosh options, and found a simple but cosy restaurant on the Neue Markt, more the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a quiet provincial town, and had tasty meals, finished off with a little schnapps! We toddled back to the hotel, to the Römischer Kaiser, and crashed out after an excellent day! Almost forgot: at some point, passing through the Naschmarkt in the morning, as the stalls were opening up, a cheeky stall owner was unpacking a big ball of sauerkraut and was busy emptying it into a bucket or container, and said to us: “it’s not too late to start a sauerkraut diet”!

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Locals? A chanting group of Hare Krishnas.
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No, we did not visit the set of War of the Worlds: the Soviet-era "UFO" bridge, Bratislava's other landmark (besides the castle).

We have now been travelling for “one and a quarter years”. I just noticed that as I was about to start today’s diary entry!

We started with another stylish elegant Viennese breakfast at the Römischer Kaiser. Ness then went out to buy a card for Ben’s birthday while I spent a bit of time writing my diary upstairs in our room. I’m continuously “behind” by about a week and trying to catch up! We checked out, loaded the car with our backpacks and set off for Bratislava. We navigated the “grown-up” traffic system of Vienna, past the huge industrial plants (refinery, oil & gas depots?) – even these somehow looked clean and tidy compared to industrial zones elsewhere – and then on the motorways. The signs here gave you a real sense of being at the junction of Europe. With signs pointing to destinations in (SK), (H), (CZ), (I) this felt like a meeting of countries at the centre of Europe.

We found the smaller road to Bratislava, on which we had come two days ago, and passed fields of sunflowers and wind farms, and drove across the Slovakian border, where there were more sunflower fields. Bratislava was not far from the border. In fact, the wind farms were very clearly visible when we reached Bratislava. Its outskirts, on the southern side, consisted of a huge Soviet-era collection of apartment blocks. Although it forms part of Bratislava, it is an entire city in its own right. Petržalka, as it’s called, is home to 150,000 people, a third of the total city’s population. We crossed the striking 1960’s-era bridge across the Danube. Nový Most (“New Bridge”), or Most SNP (“Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising”) as it was formerly called, is an architectural curiosity. It has a single supporting frame at the southern end which leans at an alarming angle and is topped by a saucer-like penthouse café (called “UFO”).

Across the bridge was the centre of Bratislava, with the castle lying on higher ground, on a rocky hill high above the Danube. The castle looked unwelcoming and rather like a big box, although it has also been likened to “an upturned bedstead”. To the right, as we crossed the bridge over the Danube, was the main old town. First impressions of the city, as we tried to find our way, was of a rather untidy, jumbled and fairly plain place. The usual roadworks abounded, but even despite these, the road layout was confusing, and not helped by our Rough Guide’s bad map. Still, we managed to follow the signs for the Ibis hotel, figuring that this would a quick and easy option. We found it, not far from the Slovak national parliament and close to the castle, but it was full. So was the more agreeable Chez David, which also had a Jewish restaurant, across the road, which was a shame as it just felt “right” (a la Arequipa). We called several hotels from the car and all were full except one very expensive one.

B*gger, now what?  The usual hunt around, spending most of the afternoon? I was keen to have time to go and see the town so suggested we just cut the crap and go for the large Crowne Plaza we had passed earlier. At €225 a night it was a very pricey option, and our most expensive hotel anywhere so far, but we were in that “what the hell” mood, and even enjoyed the swankiness of the five star surroundings, which reminded us of Kuching, where we had stayed in the Hilton. Eddie was parked in the garage below, along with the beemers and murks, and we settled into our very luxurious room, with its five star trappings which I used to take for granted not all that long ago! Not wishing to use the expensive hotel laundry service, we did some hand-washing.

Next we went out for a walk around the old town of Bratislava. The streets around the outside of the staré mesto, the old town, were rather ordinary, like a slightly grubby Mediterranean city, but inside the gate that led into the old town the atmosphere was different. It was more touristic, obviously, and many old buildings had been restored and redecorated, and work was in progress on others. It felt a little like Lublin, a pleasant provincial town, nothing like a capital city. The mostly pedestrianised cobbled streets now had terrace cafés, with the usual collection of brewery-sponsored terrace umbrellas, and plenty of people enjoying a beer or a coffee.

We strolled down one of the pedestrianised streets and picked a café at the junction of several streets, and had a bite of lunch, a tasty goulasch with bread dumplings and cold beers. Two “bums” were also sat at one of the tables, with a beer each and glass of something else. They looked like father and son, and probably weren’t bums, but it was just that, well, they didn’t look like either the standard tourists or suited bureaucrats and smart set. The old man was sleeping in the sunshine and his son (?) was just sat next to him, leaving him in peace. They hardly touched their drinks for the whole time we were there. Around us the other customers were a mix of tourists and smartly dressed bureaucrats and girls “doing lunch”, probably staff from the smart boutiques around here.

This part of Bratislava felt positively affluent. A group of hare krishnas sang, drummed and tambourined their way down the street. It gradually got busier – by now it was already late afternoon and offices, mostly those of nearby embassies and government organisations, were beginning to empty. We strolled a bit more through the streets of the old town and down towards the Danube river. This area was less charming, with a couple of large hotels, some concrete open spaces, and the busy Most SNP, with traffic thundering across it.

A pedestrian walkway below the road level of the bridge led across the wide and rapidly flowing river. On our right, on the walls of the bridge as we crossed it, was a photo exhibition of the inhabitants of Petržalka. Each picture was of an inhabitant and next to it a picture of their apartment, with an indication of the length of occupation, from “23 hours before birth” (a pregnant woman) with the nursery shown ready and awaiting its occupant, to “three days”, with a young woman who had just moved in, to older inhabitants who had lived here for up to twenty seven years. Each was an individual portrait, summing up someone’s lifestyle in a flash, as if in little capsules. The bridge thundered and shook with traffic above us. On the south bank we took the lift up, cost 100 Sk., to the “UFO” at the top of the single support. At the top, on top of the saucer, there was a viewing platform, with fantastic all-round views over Bratislava, the city of anonymous apartment blocks on the south bank, and beyond we could see the wind farms in Austria. Pulling my head back too rapidly from a shot through the wire barriers I lost my lens cap, but luckily it wasn’t the camera itself, which could just as easily have got caught. The lens cap lay tantalisingly close on the roof, but totally out of reach. I wondered how long it would remain there.

We went for a drink in the UFO bar, which was very stylish, 21st century modern, with a restaurant in one part and a bar area in the rest. Echoes of our Tower 42 drinks in London, a very long time ago! (at times it feels as if our pre-travel days belonged to someone else, as if that wasn’t us) We had excellent cocktails – I had an “ico sour” and Ness had a strawberry something. What a great setting, even if the bar did wobble quite significantly with the traffic!

We returned to the old town, to the small but charming main square, which had only a few cafés along one side, mercifully, as it allowed you to appreciate the rest of the square all the more. The smart old buildings are now occupied by embassies (France, Greece and Japan all represented) and a church and town hall were at the far end. Benches lined the central area and there was more street art, with comical sculptures, such as one of a figure leaning on a bench – in other streets circus figures had been suspended above the street, statues of acrobats performing circus acts. We had dinner at a place on the main square called Roland. The draw had been their churrasco, Brazilian style dining, where the waiters go round the tables and pile more meat on your plate if you leave your marker on green, and the name Rodizio was on the windows, a memory of Asunción. Unfortunately they weren’t doing the churrasco tonight so we just had a normal, tasty, dinner, feeling very at ease. Back at the hotel we got snug in our luxurious dressing gowns before crashing out.

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Sign of the new times, Tesco's are everywhere, whether you want them or not!
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The "UFO" bridge seen from the castle.
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Bratislava castle.

We started the day with a sauna and swim in the hotel’s swanky Fitness Plaza. We had it all to ourselves, swapping between the white tiled steam room, jets below the benches going off automatically now and then to top up the steam, and the pool. We followed this with a five star buffet, i.e. anything you could think of, unfortunately except roti canai!

We went for a tour of Bratislava, starting with the archbishop’s palace in the old town. Bratislava’s layout started to grow on us, with its quiet and mostly pedestrianised streets in an irregular pattern. Some were wide, others narrow and mysterious, connecting squares and wider streets. It was a pleasure to dip into a street wondering where it would lead you. It was a relatively compact area, and somehow you always ended up back on a street you already knew, perfect for aimless wandering. The archbishop’s palace was an imposing neoclassical (or baroque?) affair on a medium-sized square. We visited the rooms, large and small lofty rooms, each with an ornate tiled heater (poor description) and old English tapestries. These were not quite of the same standard as Flemish ones but still very impressive and in a series depicted the story of Hero and Leander. It was hard to believe but these had been lost behind wallpaper and were only accidentally rediscovered not so long ago. Further on we could look into the palace’s chapel from a small windowed balcony in a corner. The main attraction was the Hall of Mirrors but this had been closed for a function, which, naturally, I grumbled about. We were told to come back at 1pm (or 2pm?)

Next we walked out of the immediate old town and into the more ordinary city parts, up to the huge Tesco store. These stores are everywhere it seems. Walking through the streets we located a camera shop for a replacement lens cap and changed euros for Slovakian koruna at a rather “Scandinavian” bank (wood, curvy stairs, play area for kids) and then made our way back into the old part of town, where we found a little café in courtyard, with no/very few tourists, and had drinks and played a few games of cards, and then headed back to the archbishop’s palace.

The Hall of Mirrors was still closed, we shrugged our shoulders and left again. Next we walked to the castle. On our way we stopped to notice a once smart old apothecary building, still blackened with grime and awaiting “the treatment”. We went under the Most SNP and the up stairs along a path that led up the castle hill, through quiet streets, which led us to the castle walls. We had great views out over the city, the Danube, the Most SNP and Petržalka from here. A gate led us into the castle’s domain. It looked rather bleak. The castle itself was just a square lump, a very big house. It housed several museums, some of which we thought were worth a visit. The grimness and greyness was partly explained by the fact that it had been restored by the Soviets, i.e. using lots of concrete. Inside, there was a blank courtyard, blank walls with square windows looking into it. But the museum entrance, in a big stairway hall, had been painted crisply in white with gold detailing.

First we visited the dimly lit treasury. Its star attraction was housed in a glass pyramid by the entrance: the Venus of Moravany, a small twenty-four thousand years old fertility figure of a woman, an earth goddess type with bountiful boobs but no head, made from a mammoth’s tusk. The other parts of the castle housed a very interesting exhibition of Leonarda da Vinci’s works and scientific papers, with modern scale models of his many inventions. Upstairs there was a collection of all types of furniture, in a wide variety of styles, Art Nouveau, etc. but housed and displayed in a rather stuffy traditional way. More interesting was an exhibition on Slovakian tinkers. I never knew that a tinker was someone who made stuff from metal wire, and it wasn’t just itinerant tinkers making small utility pieces, but large companies were formed and large ornate pieces created. In a room somewhere we could hear organ rehearsals, spilling out into the courtyard below, for a concert.

We left the castle and walked round the corner, and downhill, and stopped for a drink and a bite of chicken livers at Chez David, the Jewish guesthouse and restaurant, and then wandered back to our luxury hotel. On the way back we found a shop and bought crisps and water, and then chilled out in our luxurious room for a while, feeling our feet from all the trudging around town. In the evening we went out for dinner to a cosy restaurant Ness had remembered seeing on a side street, not far from the main square. All the outside tables were taken but we were patient and it paid off when we got a nice table outside, and had a nice meal, with a little candle. Just the sort of thing we had in mind, a relaxed and romantic setting. Afterwards we carried on, having a drink, several coffees and Slovakian schnapps – Borovička, a Slovakian juniper brandy – sat at one of the many cafés along Michalska ul. Students, Slovak and international, now seemed to form the main group and there was a buzz in the atmosphere, and plenty of little “scams” that involved girls trying to get groups of lads to go to this or that nightclub. On the way back we spotted another piece of Bratislavan street art: a green laser beam overhead which was being bounced round the street corners with mirrors. Back in the hotel our comfy big bed was ready for us! A great day in “little” Bratislava!