The Slovakian Parliament, or more accurately, National Council, is a very modern building, situated right next door to a very old castle. The highlight, however, is its brilliant view out across the Danube. There is a huge balcony from which to admire, so it was definitely worth the adventure up the hill.
It wasn’t until I popped over to Bratislava for lunch that I finally had a chance to redeem my awful dumpling experience in Prague and try this mysteriously illusive food I had heard so much about.
As it turned out, it was all fairly overrated, as unlike delicious dumplings from far further east, the Eastern European version appears to simply be a ball of dough that has been boiled and then sliced up. Like a pork bun, but only the bun. As for the rest of the meal, it was a fairly tasty slow cooked lamb dish with a dill sauce, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the exciting new food experience I thought I was in for.
Most of central Bratislava was a pedestrian only area,and the roads in the centre of town seemed packed with cars. Not only were all the parks taken, but it seemed people had decided to be really creative with making their own parks. Where the lines clearly marked a parallel park, cars were angle parked. Why not put angle parks in if there’s that many cars? Because the roads were narrow, so not only were the cars stopped clearly at right angles to how they were meant to be, but most of them were also half on the kerb. It was like cops arriving at a hostage situation in an American movie. With this stressful mess of cars, our new found rule sensitivity after our wee issue at the border, we gunned straight for the nearest parking building to simplify the situation.
As we pulled in to what seemed to be the only parking building in the centre of the city, it seemed really secure. As we got to the levels of the cars, that was where we noticed it was suddenly full of a whole different type of cars – the expensive types. From Astin Martins to Mercedes. We looked for a park nowhere near any of these hugely expensive cars!
Hilariously enough, immediately outisde of the parking buildings were the likes of this car. Yet another stark contrast in Slovakia.
Unlike its immediate surroundings, the centre of Bratislava housed a collection of majestic buildings, fountains, alleyways full of cafes and restuarants and quirky market stalls. It also had inflated prices to match. On arrival we popped in to the Information centre to get an idea of which sights to see. To my great amusement, we had quite an unenthused customer service operative, who informed us there wasn’t much to see and just said “go in that direction.” Employee of the month. The main town centre has only recently been refurbished, although they’ll have you believe its been that well kept since its Soviet Occupation where the communist overlords took all of the nicest buildings for themselves.
Although most of Eastern Europe is now well entrenched in the European union, nowhere have I seen such a drastic change in such a short distance than on either side of the Danube driving in to Bratislava.
As soon as we crossed in to Austria from the Czech Republic, it seemed really striking just how perfectly manicured the Austrian countryside is. As we approached Vienna, the city was incredibly modern (apart from the beautiful palace/museum buildings). Even the industrial areas seemed to be really well designed.
Bratislava, however, was such a drastic change. Most of what we saw seemed like a complete slum, except for the square in the very centre, full of beautiful, older buildings, which appear to have been really well kept though apparently were only really refurbished five or so years ago. Interestingly, many of them simply had nice facades for the tourists, and if you could catch a glimpse of the back/side of a building it was hard to believe it was the same one.
On the way out, whilst looking for a supermarket (always good to stock up on the cheaper side of a border) we found ourselves completely surrounded by cookie cutter blocks, in the most impersonal, slum like “suburb” I’ve ever been in. It really astounded me how there could be such a huge difference on two different sides of the same river.
After discovering Bratislava was less than an hour’s drive from Vienna, we couldn’t resist popping over to see life beyond the Iron Curtain.
Before actually entering Slovakia, one of my travel companions had decided to stay home. Her reasoning was that she was trying for a special type of visa where you are only allowed in certain European countries, but you can spend three months in each. None of us had heard of this exception, and a big discussion ensued about how borders in the EU these days are really just a “You are now entering…” sign and no one would ever know she popped over to Bratislava for lunch. Nonetheless she decided to err on the side of caution and stay home.
“Spot the border crossing” had become a bit of a road trip game, as sometimes it is hard to tell you have entered a new country (a serious novelty when your home country is an island). There was no doubt, however, that we had found one on our way in to Slovakia. All of a sudden there was this massive checkpoint, and police waving us down and making us pull over. There were angry sounding words coming at us left right and centre. We couldn’t tell if it was Austrian, Slovakian, or German (we had German license plates) but the policeman was getting very frustrated at us. We managed to work out he was demanding our “documents” and a certain amount of euros. There was even more confusion in the car. Were we meant to pay to get over the border? Were there different rules for the newer EU members? Was it actually not part of the EU like we thought? Could we just turn around and go home? Was this some kind of dodgy Eastern European police bribery scenario? Had we unknowingly broken the Law? Why don’t any of these cops speak English? Good thing we left Lucy home, she’d be furious!
Before we knew it the policeman was marching two of us over to a van on the side of the road. We had absolutely no idea what was going on and whether we were in trouble or what. Who knows if we were going to return safe from this mysterious black van, or where he was taking our passports. As it turned out, in the van was a little man with a portable EFTPOS machine, who thankfully spoke English and explained to us that it was a road toll checkpoint and we were being fined for not displaying the correct sticker that allows us to drive on the motorway. So 140 euros later, we finally get the memo on how the road tolls work (its an 8 euro sticker!) and realise that actually the (unnecessarily, IMHO) angry policemen had nothing to do with the border and were in fact just using the old set up as a convenient checkpoint stop. They certainly were good at making us feel like it was an incredibly stressful situation and we were in some huge and mysterious amount of trouble!