I could tell things were going to be a bit different in Slovakia when I first saw the train that would be taking us from Vienna to Bratislava. The wheels squeaked as it pulled in, and the odd-looking words on the side of the train were obscured by a layer of dirt going back to the Communist era. The inside of the train car was furnished like it belonged in a Cold War spy movie, with none of the electronic gizmos and freshly-cleaned shine I had gotten used to in the German-speaking world. There was a peeling non-smoking sticker on the window of our car, although it was blocked by the conductors, who were standing in the corridor next to it, taking a smoke break.
After fewer than 10 minutes, the train stopped, and an unfriendly-looking woman wearing a dark blue suit burst into our compartment and said something in a language that was definitely not German. I handed her my passport, and my friends Erick and Louise did the same. Leif’s passport, for a complicated set of reasons, was with the City Hall in Wuerzburg, Germany. He had expected trouble at the border, so he had his driver’s license, social security card and several student IDs ready.
“Ich habe meine Reisepass zu HauseÃ¢Â?Â¦.” She cut him off before he could finish.
“No. That was stupid. You must get off train. Now.”
So they kicked Leif off the train. A few minutes after we crossed the border, the train broke down. We had to wait for an hour and switch trains.
When we finally pulled into Bratislava Hlavna stanica, I was starving, so I went to a kiosk. I recognized one of the items on the menu: “cheeseburger.” Fairly straightforward. I ordered one, paid the 40 kroner (about a dollar), and bit into it. Something was missing. I opened it up, and saw what it was: there was no meat. Just cheese. The woman working the kiosk spoke a little bit of German, so I asked her, in German, where’s the beef? She assured me that, in Slovakia, “cheeseburger” means just cheese. If you want meat, you need to order a hamburger.
The only really popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe are Prague, Budapest and perhaps Warsaw. Very few foreigners have been to Bratislava. Which is a shame, because it has a lot to offer to a budget traveler. It’s less than an hour, by train, from Vienna; in fact, Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest national capitals in the world (unless you want to count the Vatican City and Rome). It is also easy to get to by train from Prague and Budapest. It is a good deal cheaper than either of those two cities. Despite being so accessible, it is rarely visited by tourists; you’ll be one of the few tourists you see there, should you go. Which can be both refreshing and frightening. Most Slovaks don’t speak anything other than Slovak, so communication can be a problem. Some knowledge of German will go a long way – more Slovaks know some German than some English, and although few of them know either language well, you’ll be able to get by with a smattering of both.
Bratislava doesn’t feel like other national capitals. It doesn’t feel like a national capital at all. The city is divided in half by the Danube River. One half feels like the set of an old Dracula movie. The other half feels like one of the industrial ghettos of Upstate New York or the Great Lakes. All of the tourist sites are fairly close to the downtown and Old City. There is a castle, but this is Central Europe, every city has a castle. The one here is nothing special. There is also a national museum, a surprisingly large one, considering that they have only been a country for 15 years. A slightly more unconventional tourist attraction is the “Man in Hole.” It’s exactly that – a metallic statue of a manhole worker, with his head and arms poking out.
The other side of the river is where most of the inhabitants of the city live. It is a residential and industrial area, with few stores, and only small neighborhood restaurants, pubs and markets. There are some large malls near the bank, right after crossing the main bridges, but beyond this is an unbroken stretch of gray. 50 years of socialism left much of Eastern Europe looking like one massive housing project. The streets here are quiet and lightly-trafficked, and many of the buildings are abandoned. Tourists are scarce everywhere in Bratislava, and they are almost unheard of this side of the river. The few locals in the streets are often visibly surprised to see you. You may feel uncomfortable walking around here. Bratislava, like everywhere else in Eastern Europe, is much safer than any equivalently large and impoverished American city, but still, you can’t help thinking how there is nobody to hear your screams if someone were to jump out and drag you into that abandoned barÃ¢Â?Â¦Wearing a lot of black does wonders to help you blend in and feel comfortable. A permanent scowl is almost as useful.
Unlike Prague and Budapest, Bratislava has no nightlife worth speaking of. It is like every other city in Eastern Europe in that the main recreation is to drink until you have to crawl home. Many pubs are full almost every night. Eastern Europeans make the Irish look like Mormons. The beer in Bratislava is good. It is identical to the Czech beers across the border – a bit sweeter, darker and stronger than German beer, but of similarly high quality. The cheap, locally-produced liquor tastes like something you use to wash engine parts. It is guaranteed to make a tee totaling tourist sick. Absinthe is legal in Slovakia, just like in the Czech Republic. Don’t believe Eurotrip; it does not make you hallucinate. The stuff nowadays isn’t made with as much wormwood as it was 100 years ago. However, it is 70% alcohol, and it will get you insanely drunk and give you a hangover like you have probably never experienced before.
Bratislava is so unpopular with tourists that the youth hostel there is only open over the summer. We went in February, and had stupidly not bothered to reserve a room before going. The woman at the tourist information desk at the train station told us that the few hotels with rooms wanted 20 to 30 euros a night. We were seriously considering just continuing on to Hungary when I noticed a sign, in English, advertising a “hostel.” It gave directions as to which tram line to take. The tram felt like it was going to tip over at every corner, but it got us to the “hostel.” It turned out to be a college dorm. The students were on their break, and the university was renting it out. The woman with the keys, however, was in a meeting, and we had to wait half an hour. While we waited, that social butterfly Erick made his first friend in Bratislava, a Portuguese girl who was studying there. Erick is a linguistic genius; he speaks six languages, and is always in the process of learning three more. Anyway, when the woman with the keys finally saw us, it turned out that she spoke only Slovak. We were resigned to sleeping on a train when Erick’s Portuguese friend stepped in and translated for us.
The rooms were only nine euros a night! The paint was peeling and the furniture felt like it was about to break, but it had working toilets, heat and hot water, which is all you should expect for so cheap. We went to a student party that night. There were students here from all over Eastern Europe, from Germany, from Portugal, from Italy, even from Finland. They had all come to Bratislava, to learn Slovak and get their degrees here. In how many other European cities can a student get a good beer for 75 cents, a room for $40 a month and a degree for next to nothing? Just avoid the lighter fluid labelled as “schanpps” and you’ll be golden. I didn’t, which is why I can’t tell you much else about anything that happened that night.