Almost a whole year ago, now, but it feels longer because the world was so different then. Another SkyScanner search – and bargain flights, this time, to Bratislava. Geography and I are very much not natural companions, to the point it’s a running joke within my family, so I had only a hazy idea of where Bratislava might be – but a quick Google search revealed that not only was it in Slovakia (a whole new country to visit, hurrah!) but that it was a mere hop, skip and a jump from Austria on the train. I love train journeys. I was sold.
Bratislava airport is a small one, and we arrived late at night, in the warm exotic-smelling dark, so we didn’t risk any sort of shenanigans with buses or trains. As we queued for passport control I booked an Uber which was waiting for us when we walked out through the airport doors and from there it was a short ride to the Air BnB, which was a bright little apartment I’d selected mainly for its decent air conditioning.
On the first day, we’d already planned to go hiking and printed off a map. Bratislava sits snugly on the edge of a huge forest park, the Zelezna Studnicka, which is within easy reach of the city centre by bus. It’s a beautiful spot, with trails, lakes, cable cars and tiny cafes dotted here and there. There are lots of clearly marked information boards, so it’s relatively easy to wander without getting lost.
After a morning on the trails in the forest park, we climbed a bit further to the Kamzik TV Tower restaurant, which we’d already planned to visit because of its famous view of 4 countries at once (Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic). Having had a good look from the viewing platform at the four countries, and a coffee at the top of the tower, we clambered back down again and walked downhill to a bench overlooking the city, where we ate the picnic we’d packed when we were unsure whether we’d find any open cafes on the route. Then it was more hiking, looping round and back into the city centre without needing to take a bus.
On the first evening, we ate at an organic restaurant in the fashionable part of the city. We were starving from all the hill walking and seemed to be eating a lot earlier than any of the locals, so we killed time after dinner by wandering along the river and eating ice-cream until the bars got busier. Night life in Bratislava in summer is beautifully relaxed. The weather was gloriously warm and we sat outside various little bars until late, drinking the ubiquitous Aperol Spritzes.
The next day, we got up early and bought cherries and coffee on the way to the massive central train station, which we’d located the day before as we walked back into town from the mountains. My advice at the train station, if you want to travel to Austria for the day like we did, is not to try to use a ticket machine. We wasted about forty euros making endless mistakes before we finally accepted we needed help and queued for a ticket desk. That frustration aside, it was a very simple process to buy a ticket, find the platform and hop onto a train to another country.
It really DID feel like another country, too. When we got off the train a short hour after we’d climbed onto it, we were very clearly in a completely different part of the world, which was an intoxicating feeling. Different architecture, street shapes, landscape and obviously language.
Vienna is famously beautiful, and the sunny weather showed it off to its absolute best advantage. It was almost too hot to enjoy the city properly, but we did our best, walking on the shady bits of the streets and paying a visit to the cavernous, ornate and coolly dark historical library. (This was well worth the cost of a ticket for a book geek like me).
In Vienna, we decided suddenly that we needed to have a meal of traditional Austrian food. This, I’ll be honest, is easier said than done for a non-meat-eater. But in a dark wood-panelled narrow little restaurant near the station, I managed to buy myself a plate of potatoes, creamy sauce and a pastry and spinach concoction that seemed authentic enough. My meat-eating husband had schnitzel. Of course he did. (He also reminded me regularly that the whole place meant nothing to him. That’s quite a big window into the sort of man he is, actually).
It was late by the time we took the train back to Bratislava. Barely time for another Aperol Spritz before bed, but we valiantly managed it.
The third day was our last in Bratislava, and we spent it exploring the town itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the place it reminded me of most was Budapest. It’s got the same wide river running through it, of course, but that’s not the only thing. It’s something about the texture of the buildings, the colour of the stone, the design and layout of the town.
More ice cream, more food, a lazier day in general and then it was time to fly home. (Least said about that journey the better. In fact, I might focus on the memory of the incessant delays and all those hours on uncomfortable vinyl seats reading a kindle with a constantly flashing low-battery warning as a way to remind myself that it’s not all bad, this no-travel malarkey).