Monday, February 17, 2014

A Sunday in Slovakia

Bratislava is about an hour's train ride away from Vienna. We had a day to spare so we decided to country-hop to Slovakia. Bratislava is the state capital and largest city in Slovakia. We kept to the old town city center during our visit. It's the smallest part of Bratislava but tourists, shops, and restaurants fill the tiny streets.

Our entry into the old town was rather traumatic. We asked a taxi driver how much it would be for a ride to the city center and he confidently replied, "Fifteen Euros." We didn't know any better so we accepted his offer and hopped into the jalopy. Less than 5 minutes later we were dropped off at a curb and of course realized then that we had been cheated since the train station was so close. The cab ride back to the station a few hours later was a much more reasonable 5 Euros. Oh, well. You'll know better when you go to Bratislava.

It was around 10am on a Sunday morning so the streets were quiet and peaceful in the old town. We entered by passing under St. Michael's Gate and Tower. It was built in the 14th century and is the only preserved gate of the city's medieval fortifications.

St. Michael's Gate and Tower

Old Town Hall and square
We spent some time going in and out of shops and taking photos of the interesting buildings in the old town. We also made a quick stop at a restaurant to try some creamy garlic soup, a Slovakian specialty. It was very good. And very garlicky. Sadly, I can't remember the name of the restaurant we found on a tiny side-street but they also served some amazing dark beer with a complexity and richness that rivaled many Belgian beers I've had. Slovakian beer; who knew?

St. Martin's Cathedral
Our next stop was St. Martin's Cathedral. It's on the very edge of the old town and was built in the 13th century. In the late 14th century, Gothic architecture replaced the original Romanesque construction. 19 Hungarian emperors were crowned in St. Martin's Cathedral.

Artwork on the windows of a cafe under the cathedral.

From the cathedral, it's an easy walk up to Bratislava Castle. The castle has been inhabited since the late Stone Age, with its first written record dating back to 907AD. After 1526, it became the seat of Hungarian monarchs and was later transformed into a luxurious Baroque residence. In 1811 the castle was burnt down and reconstruction began many years later, in 1953. The Crown Tower, built in the 13th century, is still standing today.

We spent about an hour wandering around the castle grounds and taking in the  panoramic view of Bratislava. It's certainly a city where old meets new in a very abrupt way, almost crashing. The walk leading up to the castle is crumbling, grassy steps but all you have to do is look to the left during your ascent and you are confronted with a highway directly below, and a bustling metropolis across the Novy Most (New Bridge) over the Danube River.

New Bridge over the Danube

There was still one more food specialty for us to try in Bratislava: Bryndzove halushky, potato dumplings with sheep cheese and roasted bacon. Needless to say, it's a very rich, heavy dish that is difficult to finish in one sitting since it's served so generously. Who doesn't like potatoes, bacon, and cheese, though? It's like a loaded baked potato but much more decadent and delicious. I thought the food in Bratislava was great. Portions were large, prices were reasonable, and the dishes were flavorful. Not surprisingly. the menus reminded me a lot of those in Budapest.

We finished the day by watching the sun set over the Danube. I found the old town in Bratislava to be charming and clean. Though we were joined by other tourists, the crowds weren't overwhelming and it was nice to be able to experience the quiet, clean streets without hordes of people.

If you're ever in Vienna with a day to spare, hop on the train to Bratislava and take a gander at the old city and castle. It's worth it, especially if you can find that dark beer.

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