Bratislava, Slovakia – a weekend away – Saturday

Coeliac shopThe next morning we awoke bright and early and headed off in search of further sightseeing delights. What we didn’t realise was that a mere minute walk to the left out of our hotel was a Coeliac shop! Not selling coeliacs, no, but just gluten-free food. Mrs C was therefore able to stock up on gluten-free versions of those delicious wafers and other snack goodies. It’s only a little shop, so if you’re in need of gluten-free food in Bratislava, do drop in. It’s at Medená 19 and is called Bezlepkový svet.

Slavin MonumentWe thought we would walk all the way to the Slavin Monument and then wind our way back to the Old Town. The Slavin Monument is dedicated to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in the liberation of the Slovak lands in World War II. You might read on trip advisor about people walking there who said it was a hard slog and it takes ages. Hmmm; these people can’t be very fit. I think it took us about 45 minutes to walk up the hill from the Old Town, past all the posh houses and ambassadors’ residences, and get to the site. I’m sure you can manage it.

CemeteryOn the way up we found a little cemetery off Sulekova, which made for an interesting fifteen minute detour; quite higgledy-piggledy, with functional and elegant rather than over-ornate graves. We were surprised that very few of the graves contained a photograph of the dead person; very different from our memories of Austria.

Slavin gravesWhen you get to Slavin, it’s very peaceful and respectful, quite rightly. Neat lawns (brown) are surrounded by 278 small gravestones, each bearing the name and rank of their late soldier. With my faltering understanding of Russian in Cyrillic, I could pick out a Smirnoff, and some Captains, Lieutenants and Aviators. The view over the city is splendid. I found it quite moving. A few locals were paying their respects, side by side with some skateboarders taking advantage of the wide approach to the monument.

Cabinet officeWe took a long set of steps down to Namestie Slobody (Freedom Square) which looks like it was once very grand and is now a bit of an anachronism; very wide, very 60s, and with a central fountain that doesn’t seem to work. Opposite it is a very attractive building, which I now discover, with the use of an online translator, is the Cabinet Office. No wonder it looked quite high security. A little further along and you enter the gardens of the President’s Palace – the Grasalkovič Palace. The gardens are elegant but simple, but the back of the building isn’t anything special. It’s much more attractive from the front, with its proud flags and swish gates. Police were cruising as we took our photos, but we had purely tourist motives, honest.

Grasalkovič PalaceIt was too early for a heavy lunch – all meals in Bratislava are heavy – so we found a really smart place to have tea and play with the wifi, – Café Dias on Poštová. Very comfortable, good value and nice toilets too. Two English Breakfast teas, including a little pot of honey and a sweet creamy profiterole come in at under 4 euros.

Church of the TrinitariansWe checked out the baroque Church of the Trinitarians on the corner of Zupne namestie, but it was closed. We then dropped down to the SNP Namestie, which has nothing to do with Scottish Independence, but commemorates the Slovak National Uprising, the anti-Nazi resistance movement. It features some quite stirring statues and a big block of Slovak text engraved on a grey stone wall.

Slovak National Uprising SquareFollowing a tip-off that Obchodná is “where it’s at”, we wandered down that street which in the cold light of day is rather drab and run-down. It has all the signs of being the kind of place that comes to life at night – but still didn’t look particularly welcoming. We took a couple of pictures and moved on.

ObchodnaRound the corner we discovered a church that was open! It was the Church and Convent of St Elizabeth on Spitálska. It was nothing special on the outside but boasted baroque splendour inside, including a stunning ceiling. We carried on back into the Old Town, past the Primaciálny Palace, and into the Hlavné Namestie, where we took funny pictures with the Napoleonic guy who leans against a bench.

Church and Convent of St ElizabethDefinitely time for lunch now, and we wandered into this place called the Minerva, on Michalská. It’s underground and very atmospheric. The service was very friendly and the food was good – Mrs C and I both ordered the Grilled Trout and it was massive. A large Krusovice and a white wine for the lady. We met a couple of very nice American girls who sounded relieved to hear some other English voices. Everyone seemed to have a good time – ideal for tourists and locals alike.

NapoleonThere’s nothing you can do after a heavy lunch but sleep it off. But we couldn’t rest too long as we were due at the National Theatre for Eugene Onegin. It was a very enjoyable evening, more of which elsewhere later.

Carnevalle RestaurantWhen you emerge from the theatre at 9.45pm food is a desperate requirement. We decided not to look too far, and picked Carnevalle on Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. We knew that it would be expensive and potentially a tourist trap, but it was a risk we were prepared to take. We found the service extremely friendly but polite; we sat in the conservatory area adjacent to the square which was comfortable and warm; we went for the Garlic Lamb Shank which was delicious, sharing some rosemary potatoes and grilled vegetables, washed down with the waiter’s recommended wine, the Dunaj, which, at 29 euros was quite expensive, but was also the cheapest of the Slovakian red wines on offer, and was completely yummy. In the absence of a gluten-free dessert on the menu, the waiter suggested to Mrs C a fresh-fruit salad, and it appeared massive and exquisitely fresh and tasty. I had the Lemon Meringue pie which was very nice. I’d have no hesitation in recommending this restaurant if you’re after a less pubby type of atmosphere. It was the most expensive of our meals in Bratislava but certainly no more than you would pay for something similar in London.

We ended up at the 17s bar again afterwards for a nightcap. You probably think we have a drink problem.

Bratislava, Slovakia – a weekend away – Friday

Bratislava Old TownWhy Bratislava? Well, we’ve not been there before; it’s a European capital city; we know some friends who enjoyed it; and we liked Prague back in 1997 and thought it would be similar. On the downside the only direct flights from the UK to Bratislava are with the dreaded Ryanair. So you have to head off to Luton Airport, determined to stand up for yourself if weight/size restrictions raise their ugly head, making sure you don’t voluntarily fall for any of their costly extras. The last time we flew from Luton, a few years ago, the airport itself was a complete nightmare. Overcrowded, and with the opportunity (can you believe it?) of paying a premium to fast-track the security checks. Fortunately it was a much more pleasant experience this time; Mrs Chrisparkle’s only negative observations are that there are too few toilets. Otherwise the shops and restaurants were sparkling and welcoming at 5.30am and it got the weekend off to a comfortable and enjoyable start.

Marrol's HotelOur hotel was Marrol’s on Tobrucka. We went for it because it was No 1 on Trip Advisor and they seemed to be doing good deals. We elected to pay for their limousine transfer to and from the airport, which was a little expensive, but a very relaxed way to arrive in town. The driver loaded our one suitcase into the back of the car. “Only one suitcase?” questioned the driver slightly jealously. “You have a very practical wife, yes?” We sensed his wife wasn’t that practical.

DanubeOn arrival at the hotel we were treated with genteel charm from the start. As Ryanair got us there so efficiently (I hate it when they are so smug about it though), we arrived at the hotel hours before check-in officially started. Nevertheless, we were given our room key straight away. A welcoming glass of Hubert Brut at reception was a very nice gesture. Hubert Brut is the local Sekt and appears on every menu and is actually quite delicious. But if you ask for it in a bar or restaurant, the waiter goes away and comes back a few minutes later saying they haven’t got it and offers you the sweeter Hubert Deluxe instead. I think I got a small glass of the sweeter version somewhere once – it was cloying and a bit yukky. Get the Brut if you can.

Milan Rastislav StefanikThe room was smaller than we expected but extremely well furnished and even came with a complimentary minibar. The bed was very comfortable. The bathroom was slightly faded glory but Mrs C loved it. The TV could get hundreds of channels. Our daily breakfast was lovely – fresh juice, lots of tea and coffee, great bread, lovely cereals, good cooked eggs, bacon and sausage – you could spend a long time there stocking up your body for the day ahead.

Blue ChurchOur first sightseeing trip on the Friday morning was to find the Blue Church – or St. Elizabeth’s to give it its proper name – on Bezrucova. It’s very beautiful from the outside, like it’s covered with Wedgwood icing. As we were to discover with nearly all churches in Bratislava, it was closed apart from during services. And one doesn’t feel comfortable – or welcome – plodding round a church whilst people are praying. We were able to sneak a look inside though, and all the pews are blue too. And the doors have very elegant handles. All very charming and bijou.

Slovak National TheatreWe had booked in advance to see the Slovak National Ballet on Saturday night so we made our way to the new theatre on Pribinova. I’d got a bit confused with their official online ticket selling site, so emailed them and a very helpful reply contained a reference number that I could just give to the box office lady and the tickets would be mine (on payment of an incredibly reasonably 12 euros each.) Alas, when we got there, we were told the performance was cancelled. So much for “the show must go on”, then. She did, however, offer us tickets for the opera – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which was to be performed on Saturday at the grand old Slovak National Theatre. 25 euros for those tickets. We said yes. I’ll blog about our opera experience later!

Eurovea GalleriaBack outside we found ourselves at a swish new shopping centre – the Eurovea Galleria. Talk about home from home: Debenhams, Next, Marks and Spencer… no Primark though. Marks was astronomically expensive, but Debenhams remarkably reasonable, and Mrs C emerged from their concourse one Biker Chick Jacket to the good. From the centre you can drop down onto a path alongside the Danube. There’s some rather nice statues of a lion and of Milan Rastislav Stefanik, Czechoslovak minister of war 1918-1919, in aviator gear there, but the thing that surprised us most was how brown the grass was. It was a feature of the town in general – wherever there was a wide grassy open space, you won’t find anything green growing there. Some very swanky new apartments down there with Danube view; very desirable I should imagine.

Slang PubAfter all that shopping excitement, it was time for lunch. We made our way to the catchily named Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, (to be fair it is named after Mr Hviezdoslav, Slovak poet and dramatist) where we found the theatre but more importantly some bars and restaurants. That lunchtime we chose the Slang Pub. Regular readers might recall that Mrs C is a Coeliac, so we have to be careful to avoid that awful gluten stuff. We feared it might be difficult in Slovakia, as our memory of Prague fifteen years ago is that it was all dumplings and goulash, beer and pretzels, all of which are no-go areas. We need have not feared. Firstly, in our entire time in Bratislava, we did not encounter one person who could not speak English. That was very helpful. Secondly, they all seemed very clued up on Coeliac’s disease, and as soon as it was mentioned said things like “ah yes, I know” or “I personally have a nut allergy” or “no bread for you then Madam”. So Mrs C had a delicious looking (and she confirmed it was delicious-tasting too) chicken breast with bacon and cheese melted on top, and I had a goulash. Mine was washed down with a lovely Zlatý Bažant beer, and Mrs C had a white wine. It was very friendly, comfortable and good value at 22 euros for all that including a tip. We said we would go back. As it happens, we didn’t.

Mr HviezdoslavWe wandered around the square and were amazed at how quiet it all was – very few people on the streets or in the bars and restaurants. It must all come to life tonight, we thought. It’s a very nice square, or rather an oblong, nestling at the southern end of the Old Town, full of attractive old buildings, with curious streets coming off it, some statues, and the US Embassy to boot. At the far end you can get a glimpse of the new bridge with its odd UFO pod hovering over it, which I understand houses a very nice but vastly pricey restaurant, which we felt we didn’t need to fork out for.

Slovak FilharmonikSome of the Old Town buildings stand out as really beautiful – I thought the Slovak Philharmonic in particular looked great, and I was sorry they weren’t performing that weekend. Sadly, a lot of the backstreet areas have been subjected to appalling graffiti. Some of the buildings in the Old Town reminded me of those rather stately homes in the East Village/ Greenwich Village areas of New York.

Reminds me of New York An afternoon nap called, especially as we had been up since stupid o’clock. So when we later headed out at night to find pre-dinner drinkies, we found ourselves at a place called Café Hemingway on Klariská. It looked great from the outside. Then we went in, and were slapped in the face by a vast swell of cigarette smoke. One gets so used to the smoke-free nature of going out in the UK that the thought of sitting in a smoky atmosphere is now beyond imagination. My guess is that if you’re a smoker, the Café Hemingway looks like a perfect place to relax.

Man at WorkSo we started reading the signs on the doors. A cigarette symbol means you can smoke inside, a struck through cigarette means you can’t. I think if there is no symbol it means they have separate smoking and non-smoking areas. A couple of doors down we found quite a modern elegant bar called Twenties. We tried it. We ordered the Hubert Brut and they didn’t have it. Instead we tried some other white wine and it was super. They have a restaurant at the back which we didn’t check out but the vibe felt good. We thought we would come back. We didn’t.

Castle by nightWe walked up the steps and turned right towards Zupne namestie. There we found a little treasure, a restaurant called Pulitzer. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it did win some awards. It’s great. We ordered the Hubert Brut, they didn’t have any. But they did have some lovely Krusovice beer which I remember from Prague as being sweet and juicy. It still is. Mrs C had a white wine (again) and was beginning to realise that your average white wine in a bar or restaurant in Bratislava is likely to be not quite cold enough and not quite dry enough. The proof of the pudding though was in the eating. I had chicken stuffed with spinach and tofu, with the nation’s speciality gorgeous roasted potatoes in rosemary. Mrs C had the Garden Salad and pronounced it divine. Then for dessert I had Šúlance – dumplings in a sugar and poppy seeds mix, which was slightly odd but very tasty. Mrs C plumped for hot berries in ice cream. The place had a very trendy, studenty feel to it, and was ridiculously cheap for the amount we ate. Loved it. We said we would go back. We did – but it was closed, so we didn’t.

17s bar Time for post-dinner drinkies and we discovered the 17s Bar back down on Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. An excellent little find. We ordered the Hubert Brut. They didn’t have any. But they did have other very nice wine and beer at a very reasonable price. Friendly and welcoming, exactly the kind of bar you would associate with Bratislava or Prague. We said we would go back. We did, every night. But we remained surprised how quiet late night Bratislava seemed to be. Where were all the stag parties we had read to fear about? To be fair, we saw one bunch of drunken youths earlier on in the evening, but that was it. Doubtless Saturday would be busier.

The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.

But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.

Jimi HendrixIf I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.

“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).

At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.

Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.

Covent Garden“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.

So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.