Vienna is only an hour’s train ride away from Bratislava, so on Saturday I hopped across the border into Slovakia for a day’s sightseeing. It feels so cosmopolitan to be able to take a short jaunt on a train into a different country, very much “Well look at me, little Madam Global Traveller, crossing nations with verve and panache.” I wonder if people living in Newcastle get the same thrill knowing they’re just a teeny train ride away from Scotland…. I suspect not.
Entering Slovakia was the first time I’d felt a huge difference when crossing the border. With the other countries I’ve been popping in and out of, I can tell the difference once I’m out and about wandering around, but this time it was immediately noticeable upon arriving into the train station.
Obviously the language was completely alien to me so there was no sense of familiarity there, but there was a subtle difference in the atmosphere also, as if the train had not only travelled geographically but also through time, depositing you back by only 20 years – everything’s the same, but different.
Surprisingly, both the old town centre and the modernised pedestrian shopping area by the waterfront, were largely empty. There was no hustle and bustle that one normally associates with a capital city on a Saturday. That it was too cold for the shops to keep their doors open, augmented the impression of a city under a sleeping spell waiting for a prince of dubious morals to snog a girl in a coma in a deserted palace. (Look I’m just saying that in real life it’d be a bit off: young chap finds a girl he’s never met who’s so heavily asleep she could be mistaken for dead, and he decides to seize the day and lay one on her? In the stories and the films, she yawns prettily, wakes up minty fresh with all her tresses perfectly in place, and smiles winsomely at this stranger who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. She does not have the normal reaction of punching at the air, yelling “whaaarghruagherfug”, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, blearily focusing on the boy in jodhpurs and demanding “Who are you, and the what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing in my bedroom?”)
This is not to say that I didn’t like Bratislava, far from it, I thought it was wonderful. The old town of course is a tangle of the ubiquitous, cobble stoned streets that still can’t fail to give you a mental cosiness – a feather down quilt coddling your brain – no matter how many thousands of them you’ve lugged your wheelie case across in the last two weeks.
Each alley off a street leads to a topsy turvy nest of shops and offices, inviting you to explore whilst accordion players serenade you. It feels pleasantly jumbled together, like a toddler making a tower out of Duplo Lego (that’s the really big chunky ones to the uninitiated). On the top of the hill/cliff maybe, dominating the entire city is the frankly enormous castle which puts Sleeping Beauty’s hovel to shame.
I was particularly fortunate that on the day I was there, the university was holding a charity colour run, so on every street you saw weary runners covered in powder paint heading back to bed and the streets were rainbows fallen to the ground.
It sounds pretty, and it was, but it takes a fierce amount of concentration not to bump into hundreds of people covered, head to toe, in neon bright talc.