Friday, 16 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 2: Boarding the UFO

Here's the next instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

Across a bridge above a busy highway, a quick right... and suddenly I’m transported back centuries to the Old Town.

The narrow laneway leading to Michael’s Gate is an effective filter between the two worlds, funnelling me through an archway onto a gently sloping cobblestoned street.

Not far from here I find Čokoládovňa pod Michalom.

Up to now I’ve been noticing the similarities between Poland and Slovakia... but now I’m reminded again of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna just 60km away with its tradition of coffee houses and cakes.

It’s too hot to sit inside, so I sit under the canopy that’s been erected in the middle of the street, one of a series of mini ‘beer gardens’.

The first page of the menu has dozens of varieties of hot chocolate, more fanciful as you get down the page. They range from Grand Cru (70% cocoa with a touch of vanilla) to the fanciful Sudanese (coconut, orange, honey, whipped cream).

I request a slight alteration to the Grand Cru, adding orange. When it arrives, it’s a revelation. Not only is the chocolate so thick and rich you need to eat it with a spoon; but the orange is actually pieces of orange. Delicious. Some might say it’s too hot for hot chocolate, but not me.

I also notice a lot of whipped cream in the menu items, something I always think of as an Austro-Hungarian emblem. Then, because I’m curious about the non-chocolate items, I order a heated apple juice, with absinthe, cinnamon and lemon (see photo above). Wise?

Beyond the compact splendours of the Old Town, I’m dedicated to exploring the wonders of the communist era. The first stop is, naturally, the ‘UFO’ atop the New Bridge.

It’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s one thing to build an observation platform, but to decide to build it on top of a bridge, its saucer-shaped platform supported by two tall beams that lend it the name ‘UFO on a stick’?

As always with the communists’ more extreme flights of fancy, what were they thinking? It’s as if even anything frivolous, like a viewing platform, had to be attached to something functional, eg a bridge.

I approach from the Old Town, crossing the defiantly green Blue Danube along the pedestrian walkway slung beneath the traffic. Then it’s up up up via a lift inside the eastern support pillar.

From a rather swish modern foyer, one then climbs a few flights of stairs to the open area on the top. And it’s here that you get a good understanding of the different facets of Bratislava.

Stand facing north across the river, and the orange-brown tiles of the Old Town beckon, with hints of its winding alleys interrupted by the spires of churches. The castle, of course, is dramatically poised on the hill to the west.

Turn around and face south, however, and it’s a different story. Beyond modern offices and shopping malls stretches the Petržalka district, a vast collection of huge concrete boxes that look identical.

On the hazy horizon just beyond them are the unmistakeable pipes and vents of industry. It’s like heaven and hell, dramatically speaking; certainly I’ve never seen such immediate contrast in any city, even the Polish ones.

After I’ve had my fill of the view among the gaggle of German tourists, I descend to the bar off the foyer.

There’s nothing communist-era about this; it’s been renovated to cutting edge 21st century standards: stylish low chairs, a lot of white, a gleaming well-stocked bar. And as is inevitable with these places, a fairly steep drinks list.

The place also quivers slightly in the breeze, but not too alarmingly. I drink a $5 doppio, enjoy the view, watch the beautiful people drinking at the bar, then descend once more to the bridge.

It’s a hot day in Bratislava, well over 30 degrees with a dash of humidity, which means the covered beer gardens down here at human level are doing a good trade.

Next post:  The strange statues of Bratislava...

Friday, 9 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 1: Castle to Clocks

Browsing old files on my laptop, I came across notes I'd written about my visit a few years ago to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. 

I'd intended them to be the backbone of an article, but sadly I never wrote about the city.

So here they are, with but a light edit to preserve their immediacy. Join me, just arrived by train from the Tatra Mountains on the Polish border...

So here I am in the Slovak capital. Hadn’t intended to come, but my schedule was a few days ahead in the end and it made sense.

Slid into the main station yesterday and immediately had a taste of the crumbling architecture of the communist years. The station is a bit shabby, as are the trains, but there’s a splendid mosaic in the main hall featuring folks in shirtsleeves watching Sputnik pass overhead – a sort of a modern Bayeux Tapestry.

Tram to apartment passed some fairly hideous concrete government buildings, then deposited me on crumbling pavement in residential district just outside city centre. Rented apartment has all the usual amenities: hard sofa bed to sleep on, dodgy hot water, not enough furniture. Handy for tram though.

It was a Sunday so I decided on an initial walk from heights of the castle down through the Old Town beneath it; a logical route followed by many in the old days, I’m sure.

But it was 30 degrees by mid-morning – no way was I walking up that hill if it could be avoided, so caught a bus.

This landed me on the quiet western side of the castle, and as I walked back toward it, my attention was caught by a modern white building on the right, its concourse promising lofty views.

I walked to the edge and was rewarded by a view down over the UFO, a strange circular observation deck built high above the structure of a 1970s bridge. But more of that later.

Turning back, I noticed a number of Slovak and EU flags fluttering above an artificial waterfall in front of the building, along with a statue of a woman handing out flowers as if she were Eliza Doolittle.

I realised this was the Slovak parliament, the seat of government for a Slovakia independent for the first time ever.

I felt warmly toward it, its fluttering flags and statue, as I’d felt warmly toward the compact presidential palace I’d spotted from the bus stop earlier, probably the haunt of some minor Austro-Hungarian noble in the old days.

I like these small Central European countries, they remind me of Tintin's Syldavia.

To the castle, less decorative than usual but still rather impressive – a big brown rigidly geometric number on the hilltop, with four towers holding together a square with absolutely straight walls.

Wandered around inside the attractive grounds before beginning my descent, met some Malaysian guys on the way, had a chat about the heat. Finally put on sunblock.

The way down was via impressive castle gates leading to narrow winding streets on the side of the hill.

I stopped at the Blue Star, a tavern on the way whose menu boasted centuries of intrigue: politicians and nobles of the imperial days, meeting here to chew things over. After a Zlatý Bažant beer I felt looser, relaxed, able to keep going.

Stopped at the Clocks Museum, within a tall, narrow house on an intersection, in what was the Jewish quarter in pre-WWII times.

Incredibly dangerous stairs, but led up to small rooms filled with intricate timepieces. There were some intriguing pieces from an age mixing gilt baroque angels with then-new technology

They included a clock with the four stages of life carved on its surf, ending with a skull indicating death. Something to cheer you up on those cold winter evenings.

Next post: I ascend to the UFO...