Towns / Cities Visited: 133
Countries Visited: 21
Steps Taken Today: 18,025
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,368,961
Treating ourselves to a sleep in, we arose slowly and had a bite to eat for breakfast before we began our rather leisurely day or exploring Slovakia’s capital city. We had hoped to visit a couple of the surrounding castles, but just as many shops are shut on Sundays in this part of the world, many tourist attractions take their down time on a Monday. As a result, we would be forced to try and fit the castles in the following day before we moved on into Hungary. Not to put a damper on our adventure though, we were soon heading out to enjoy the sunshine as we meandered through yet another beautiful, old European city.
After a quick drop into the train station to organise our train tickets for the following day, we turned back towards the old town, taking a short stop to view Grassalkovich Palace. This grand white building sits on Hodžovo námestie, one of the major squares in the city, and is accented by the modern fountain which sits proudly as the centrepiece of this relaxed public space. The palace was built in 1760 while Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was used as a summer palace for the Habsburgs. However, now that the country is no longer under the yoke of foreign rule and communist control it is the home of the country’s president. For obvious reasons, the building exudes the baroque charm seen so often across Austria, and this also extends to the French style formal gardens at the rear. The combination of clear blue skies and the spray of colours filling the symmetrical flower beds made feeling stressed here a near impossibility, and we took some time to bask in it before we moved on.
A short walk saw is delving amongst the stunning architecture of the old town, and we soon arrived in Hlavné námestie, the main square of Bratislava. There isn’t necessarily anything unique about the space, but it still offers the same charm of those across Europe; the kind of meeting space modern life no longer endeavours to create. The red brick roofs, sentinel-like clock tower, and lack of motor vehicles, makes it easy to imagine how this city must have been before technology came along both connecting and disconnecting us simultaneously.
With the sun high in the sky, our stomachs had more pressing demands on us other than sightseeing, and thus we weaved our way through the narrow paved streets before we settled on a little restaurant promising local dishes for a decent price. Sitting down at one of streetside tables, it wasn’t long until our soups came out, the sauerkraut soup being the better of the two. This was followed swiftly by our mains of Zemiakové Placky, a potato pancake filled with chicken; and Bryndzové Halušky, potato dumplings with goats cheese and bacon, both of which were pretty decent, although I fear there may have been a little less love in them than Slovak grandmothers would imbue; the dangers of eating out as a tourist. Then we sat and waited, and waited, and waited for our strudel. Trying hopelessly to catch the attention of our somewhat inattentive waiter, we eventually flagged down another who managed to deliver us our final course. We scoffed it down a little more listlessly than the previous dishes, and hopped up to pay. Walking over to the service station we were met by our waiter carrying our desserts; somehow he had managed to miss us receiving and eating them. Paying the bill, we walked away, only to see our waiter tucking into our late and unnecessary dessert. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that we did not tip.
Continuing on, satiated, if a little miffed, we wandered through the streets, pausing to admire the architecture and art as we went, until we finally reached the banks of the mighty Danube. Crossing the Most SNP, the bridge of the Slovak National Uprising, we arrived at the far side to visit the best vantage point in the city; the aptly named UFO Observation Deck. Although the price was a little high, as we popped out of the elevator and headed up onto the viewing deck, it was obvious that this was worth the visit. The view down over the city and beyond was gorgeous, and the clear skies meant that the visibility allowed us to see all the way to Austria and Hungary from this closely bordered city. Out perch showed us the recognisable clock tower of where we had been, as well as the prominently placed Bratislava Castle, which we would be visiting later. The heavens were a cloudless blue, and the river a rich green; they say that blue and green should never be seen, but with a stroke of luck there just happens to be a historic city in between. As quaint as the old town is, when you look to the south of the river it is hard not to recognise the clear mark of communism on this land, with its industrially stark concrete apartment blocks displaying the vast difference between the baroque romance of architecture gifted by Habsburg wealth, and the hardships brought over the Slovaks by the Iron Curtain.
Now, although the interior of Bratislava Castle may not be accessible to us until the next day, we still took it upon ourselves to make the trek up the hill in order to visit the Baroque gardens which decorate the stark white and somewhat bland exterior. As we walked through the gates to the garden, the area suddenly lost its sterility. The space may be just as much a restoration as the rest of the castle, but regardless, they have done justice to recreating the kind of Schönbrunn style leisure garden which would likely have surrounded the castle under its Habsburg rule. The clean white of the stone staircase, and the pebbled paths, contrasts beautifully with the deep green of the immaculately manicured hedges, the lush grass, and the occasional pop of colour bestowed by carefully placed flowers. Atop the symmetrically placed pedestals stand a collection of expertly carved stone statues depicting rather bratty looking children, scantily clad in strategically placed swathes of cloth, and grasping everything from sheaths of wheat and bunches of grapes; to flutes, shields, and books. I know they are meant to appear cherubic in form, but something about their posture and the slight curl in their lips makes them seem more smug than anything.
Journeying out to the front of the castle, we paused in the Yard of Honour, the panoramic space flanked on either side by elaborately decorated triumphal gates. Taking a short moment to admire the view down over the river and the observation deck, we called it a day and headed back to our hostel, stopping in at the shops to buy supplies to cook ourselves an evening meal.
The day may have been rather low key; however, it had allowed us to see the city with fresh eyes and at a wildly less breakneck speed. This was probably the first time we had really gone into a city with no plan other than to wander, and yet as a result we had looked more and seen more than we would have in the usual mad dash between sights. The straight edges or centuries old Baroque windows, and the curves of the female form immortalised in the centre of a playful fountain finally garnered more attention than a train timetable, or Google’s projected walk time across town. As was a rare occurrence, we were erring on the side of holidaying rather than travelling, and it made for a refreshing change. Tomorrow we would remount the horse of speedy sightseeing and extra curricular information cramming which can only come from mass visitation of historic European sights. For now though, it was time to sleep.