Friends spent last weekend at our home in Bratislava. For some reason, I have never considered blogging about “3 days in Bratislava…”. Here it goes:
Bratislava is a city which morphs to the seasons as a variety of festivals pass through the city. Old Town is the heart of what’s happening and the main square tends to be the stage. Fall is a season of music, film, photography, and beer. There’s always beer. It’s also a season for goose and generally sunny and pleasant days. Last weekend was no exception as our friends Kirsten and Bob arrived from Raleigh, North Carolina.
In a town where music rules, it seemed appropriate to start with a concert from the Central European Music Festival. The day Bob and Kirsten arrived, Joshua Bell performed at the Reduta with the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields Orchestra. A town which doesn’t toss around standing ovations ended the evening on their feet. The Bruck violin concerto reinforced why Joshua Bell’s name is bantered in the list of best violinists performing today. My untrained ear and the appreciative smiles from the more seasoned classical music aficionados seemed in agreement. It was a special
night. After the concert we floated the option of “just one beer” at the bar across the street and next to the Carleton Hotel, Prazdroj. After a momentary hesitation, after all Kirsten and Bob had arrived from the US earlier that afternoon, we picked beer over an early bedtime. Fortuitously, so did Joshua Bell. The bar was packed as we crammed around the last small table in a hidden corner. When the master walked in, the bar patrons applauded, cheered, and a table magically cleared. In this European capital city with a small town feel, it seemed perfectly normal to drink our beer next to a classical music superstar who sipped a beer of his own amongst friends. The entourage, if any, was small. In a case tucked next to him, we speculated sat his four million dollar Stradivarius. A situation which in other cities may seem surreal didn’t even prompt a momentary pause. Here, in Bratislava, it just seemed natural.
Earlier in the evening, we had swung into 1752 (short for 1752 Bratislava Mestiansky Pivovar) for an early dinner. A tent in the courtyard and bright red Slovak only menus – in place of the normal black and English translated – gave hint this wasn’t an ordinary night. We found a table but not an English-speaking waiter. We resigned ourselves to beer here followed by dinner elsewhere when an English speaking Slovak man, his stubbled black head swaying over beer legs in a Beasty Boy sweatshirt, asked what we needed. After learning we are Americans who frequent this restaurant, he introduced himself as the owner, Brano. My money was on local miscreant. He slurred
that tonight was the “Beer Revolution” – Slovakia’s answer to Oktoberfest. The menu was a smaller selection of specially grilled options. His modest dress and mannerisms belied the fact he is the successful entrepreneur behind a two restaurant and brew pub empire. Slovakia is dominated with great Central European beers, although typically subsidiaries of the large Heineken or Molson-Coors controlled breweries. Brano is a beer master who brews his concoction on these same premises. The communists destroyed the original brewery, along with the Jewish neighborhood, when they built a bridge across the Danube. And here a theme reemerged. When we questioned the motivation behind this brewery and these restaurants he said it was his way to reclaim the city from 48 years of uninvited guests. Beer, music, a small town vibe and a goal of distancing the future from the past – this is Bratislava.
As we walked home from the concert, we laughed. This night was a microcosm of our life here. Great beer and food, music and complete confusion rescued by a most unlikely guardian angel, a bit swaying yet endearing. When we don’t think we can figure out the menu, what to do, or where to go – we are almost always saved by a character who steps into our lives. Occasionally, they remain – other times, they are just a Good Samaritan passing through, stopping only long enough to save our day. So come and prepare to roll with some communication challenges. In these most trying of times have emerged our most memorial experiences.
Weekend mornings generally find me sipping a coffee in the shadow of Old Town square. This morning we stopped by the ubiquitous Viennese chain, Julius Meinl, and plotted our day while sitting outdoors. There’s a cacophony of sights and sounds in this very busy corridor which connects Old Town to the river. Exploring the network of cobbled streets, peeking into churches including the cathedral of St. Martin, is always good for a few hours. The gem of Bratislava is the pedestrian old town. Try any place which seems interesting for a coffee or a beer, but do some research before eating a meal in this neighborhood. It is possible, though less likely, you will be served a reasonably priced and high quality meal. Given our late start, we didn’t have too much time to meander before heading to the neighborhood nestled between the Reduta and
the Danube and one of our favorite “go to” restaurants, Trafena Hus, for lunch. This restaurant, on the lowest part of Sturova street before the Danube, overlooks the square which was the site of the famous Ladislav Bielik photograph of the Soviet invasion. A memorial to the young woman who died on this square is on the front of the University building just across the street from the restaurant.
After lunch we cut down from the old bridge onto the Danube walk and headed towards the modern complex of malls, movie theater, fine arts
performance hall, and restaurants known as Eurovea. Depending on the weather, this area will be bopping with couples lying on the lawn, children chasing dogs, and locals drinking a coffee or beer or wine in one of the many swank restaurants. We dropped into Kolkovna (the flagship restaurant of Pilsner Urquell) – where some selected desserts and others, beer. The food is quite good and when the weather is nice, you can sit outside on the river. Cutting back to our apartment on Grosslingova is an easy and quick detour to
the famous Blue Church. Just up the road at the corner of Grosslingova is our favorite café, Corney. This makes a great alternative stop if the Eurovea scene feels a bit too “we could be back home.”
In the evening, we chose Budvar Budweiser on Cintorinska for Bob’s favorite beer. The restaurant is a large German style beer hall in horseshoe shaped building which envelopes the entry courtyard. The neighborhood is the grimier (yet safe and typical) neighborhood outside the old town core. If you have some extra minutes, duck into the church at the end of this short road and stroll through the cemetery.
All evenings end strolling through Old Town. I like to enter Old Town on Laurinski – the wide pedestrian street connecting from the east side of town. Live music played at the Studio Club not too far down this street. It was our first time to stop by here. We’ll be back. The beer is Bernard, the music jazz, and the bar cozy.
On a pleasant day, I like to stretch my legs up to the castle and on to Slavin Monument and the Funus bar.
(follow link for more details). We swung into Funus for beer and some appetizers acting as lunch. The Czech beer, only on tap for this weekend as part of Oktoberfest, was exceptional. The Hermelin cheese topped with onions and served with dense Slovak bread hit the spot. We always have the same waitress here and she she is perennially friendly. Her English is enough to order something to eat and drink, not enough to find out where she grew up or how long she has worked at Funus. Keep it simple, and you’ll be fine. This outdoor bar is very typical. Fight the urge to bypass this stop and go in, have a seat, and wait for them to serve you. The window service is optional. Generally, after this trip, I take a nap. If you want to explore some museums in town, I would recommend the Pink Palace (The Primate’s Palace), the Old Town Hall, and the Apponyi House and Viticultural Museum – and in that order. They are all cheap, and interesting enough to warrant an hour or two.
Given the weather was nice, we wandered over the old bridge to Mytny Domcek for dinner. This restaurant situated at the far terminus of the old town bridge is the charming, old gate house. The upstairs is small with yellow walls, dark wood mismatched tables and chairs, and a killer castle view. The food is good and cheap. The waitresses speak English well and will recommend some dishes. They have choices here not found in other restaurants. If you are adventurous, have the waitress’s favorite dinner.
We ended the evening with a walk through the park on this side of the river heading over to Novy Most (the UFO Bridge). The park is perfectly safe even after dark. At the far end of the park, you can cross the bridge on a lower pedestrian only level and drop right into Old Town. End the evening strolling the streets at night and looking for an interesting bar with live music.
My favorite thing to do in Bratislava, hands down, is to bike. (Follow the link to information on biking Bratislava, including bicycle rental). The bike trail to Austria is across Stary Most on the far side of the river from Old Town. An immediate right leads you to the bike trail (marked on the road in red). Follow this road bike trail for a few miles and veer to the right when the path and road diverge. In 10 minutes of flat pedaling you
will be in Austria. The bike path is generally marked. Given the Bratislava castle is almost always visible – it’s hard to get lost. Explore the small villages (Kittsee, Berg, Hainburg, Bad Deutsch Altenburg) of eastern Austria. Grab an Austrian beer anyplace which looks interesting (we sometimes stop at the Al Capone Bar in Berg). I hadn’t ridden a bike in 25 years but the old saying is true. You really don’t forget. While this may appear to be too much planning, you will not regret this choice (Give us a call, if we are free, we’ll go with you).
On this day, or any other day where you have time, spend it in old town. Do not constrain yourselves to the main corridor up to the square and
Michael’s gate. Walk the length of Kapitulska – which runs up from St. Martin Cathedral. I love this street of largely run down 500-year-old houses not yet renovated. At the end, turn right and pop into Igor’s music shop. Pick up a CD of a Slovak concert you heard during your visit.
Bratislava is a safe town. Wander, talk to people, get lost, struggle to communicate, see how many different types of beer you can drink (I believe Kirsten and Bob sampled fourteen different Central European and Austrian beers). Make an effort to see a concert or an opera. In Kirsten and Bob’s words – they are happy to have discovered this little gem before it becomes the inevitable crowded tourist location which is its destiny.
And of course, email us if you have any questions. We’ll meet you at our favorite place for a beer.
Categories: Insiders Bratislava