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.