Just an hour and a half down the Danube from Vienna, Bratislava feels like it’s half a world away. The western imperial solidity of the latter city gives way to a mishmash of old and new, Soviet straight lines rubbing shoulders with of Austro-Hungarian fripperies and the first intrusions of modern glass and steel housing department stores with all-too familiar names.
All of this is crammed into one of the smaller cities that I’ve visited to date, and it makes it hard to get a grip on Bratislava or, by extension, Slovakia itself. A relatively young country, having split off from Czechoslovakia, it still seems to be figuring itself out, an adolescent nation more sure of what it’s not than what it is.
That’s probably reading too much into my visit to the capital, which is in the western corner of the nation, but there are hints here and there.
Bratislava Castle, standing on a rocky peak that dominates the Danube, burned down in the 19th century and was restored in the Soviet era. It’s a restoration that left the interior feeling rather empty, albeit with fascinating nooks and crannies like the 85m-deep castle well and the Crown Tower. The exhibitions it houses help to express some sense of Slovak identity too. First on the efforts of Slovaks to seek autonomy under Austria-Hungary, but more importantly on the legacy of Great Moravia, a brief-lived post-Roman nation that dominated this part of Europe for a few generations until the arrival of the Magyars and the beginning of Hungary to the south. Forging a collective identity requires identifying a shared heritage.
Back down in the Old City, that identity was being worked out through what seemed to be a weekend of festivals and events. Traditional crafts and trades on display in a thronged main square, traditional dancers hammering the boards on a nearby stage, and Eco- and fitness-festivals further out. It’s probably an accident of the weekend that I was there, but it seemed that this wasn’t really for the sake of tourism. There was engagement and activity everywhere, and a vibrancy that reminded me of Berlin, albeit on a much smaller scale – filling in the gaps of a multipart history and turning it into something whole.
I stayed longer than planned in Bratislava, and I’m glad that I did. Of all the countries that I’ve hit on this trip so far, Slovakia is the one I’d most like to return to. There’s an openness about the people and something very fresh about the culture. And given that Bratislava makes up such a small part of one corner of the nation, there’s bound to be a great deal more to discover. Still, the railroad goes ever on, and I continue to follow it – next up, more Danubian encounters with Budapest and Hungary.
So, I’m doing it again. One year after Greece, four years after the Trans-Siberian and six years after Norway, I’m once more taking an August-September travelling holiday, hitting a bunch of new (to me) locations. Once again, rail is the medium for my peregrinations, and this time the locale is as much of the former Soviet Bloc as I can fit into three weeks. (No, I’m not visiting Belarus as part of this trip, and as much as I’d like to drop in on Ukraine, it might be better to leave that for later too.)
That map above gives the general outline of the trip: Krakow, Poznan (briefly), Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava (briefly), Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Veliko Tarnovo, Bucharest, and then … options. This is one of those trips where the early stages have been nailed down and booked, whereas the latter ones are more reliant on train availability and everything that goes before. Which, even though it might rub my obsessive compulsive tendencies the wrong way, is still appealing. Not knowing exactly where I’m going to wind up probably won’t do my mother’s blood pressure any favours, but I’m happy enough to keep a loose leash on the days ahead.
One of the nicest of things about this trip is that I’ve never been to most of the countries I’ll be visiting—the only ones I’ll be returning to are Germany and Austria, and even there, Berlin or Vienna will be entirely new. In fact, once this trip is over, the only European nations remaining unchecked will be fall into three groups: the Russian fringe (Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and maybe Moldova), the Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia), and a scattering of others (Switzerland, Portugal and most of the microstates—Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, and Monaco). Which brings me close enough to a complete collection to prompt a few more holiday ideas at least.
For now though, an Eastern European Odyssey is the order of the day. Preparations have been made, maps have been consulted, and tickets have been booked where possible. And as many considerations as I can consider have been considered.
Rail Travel: As mentioned, rail is the way to go here, and the resource worth relying on is The Man in Seat 61. It’s served me well in the past and it did here too, though booking tickets beyond Vienna has proved less useful than just showing up at the station in person. Sleeper services will be taken of wherever possible, and there might be a brief river trip between Vienna and Bratislava if the Danube isn’t too drought-stricken. When I get to Bulgaria and Romania though, my timetable will be at its most flexible. It’s just a pleasant coincidence that my options will be opening up as Europe reaches its most alluring.
Accommodation: The open nature of the latter end of my travels means that I can’t book too far ahead, but even if I could, I’m going to be taking a leaf out of my Greek odyssey: stick to booking a day or two ahead of time, using the Booking.com and AirB&B apps on my phone. Sleeper services are to be preferred, but hostels and B&Bs are just as valuable, mostly for their showers and laundry facilities. If I’m travelling light, cleaning my clothes will be a necessity at some stage.
Flights: Normally, the two things I’d book first would be my flights there and back. Well, I’m flying into Kraków to kick things off, but where I’ll be flying back from? That’s still undecided. I’d like to visit Moldova (because why not, when you have the chance?) but flights back from there are at least twice as expensive as from neighbouring Romania. So we’ll see. I have a ticket tracker running using the Kayak app, and the sudden availability of a cheap option may well determine how and where my journey ends.
Technology: Technology-light is the rule of the day. As in Greece, nothing more than my phone is to be brought. Even my new Pebble Time is getting dropped in favour of a Timex Weekender with a battery that lasts five years instead of five days. This will make it a little tricky to update the Travel section of this site as I go, but I’ll do my best. Those long train journeys will definitely give me time, at the very least. Still, my poor old iPhone 5S is suffering from geriatric battery syndrome these days, so one more piece of tech is needed. I’ve bought myself an Anker Astro E7 external battery, and having tested it for the past week, I’ve deemed it good. At the cost of a little extra weight to my backpack, I should be able to keep my loyal iPhone, and more importantly its camera and booking capabilities, running for as long as I need them.
Reading Material: This is an issue. Travelling light rules out carrying more than two books, and with one of those slots taken up by a Lonely Planet guidebook, that leaves little wiggle room. A friend has loaned me an ageing Sony eReader, but that runs up against both the low-tech rule and my personal preferences. I might rely on second-hand bookstores instead, or just read on my iPhone. (The latter option might seem a poor one, but I’ve read the Bible and War and Peace on my phone before, so it is an option. Maybe Moby Dick this time…)
Writing Material: Of course, without reading to take up my travelling time, and assuming that staring out the window can only occupy one for so long, writing will have the field to itself. So pens, some ink refills, and a notepad or two will be packed. How much I’ll get to write (beyond the requisite journal of my travels) remains uncertain, but the idea of letting my brain wander on the Danube plain is a huge draw. Even when I’m not strolling the city streets, there’s be imaginative highways and byways to explore.
Missing: What will I be missing while I’m gone? Well, not a huge amount. As the next category shows, the timing of this trip has worked out rather well. The start of the Pro12 rugby season and a few pre-World Cup friendlies is about the height of my sporting interests. Missing the Irish Craft Beer Festival stings a bit though. As for work, it’s been packed away for the next few weeks, and when it comes to keeping an eye on the state of the Internet, that’s something I could do with less of.
Returning: On the other hand, within a week of my return, I’ll have the return of Doctor Who, the start of the Rugby World Cup, a new niece to be a godfather to, and one of those birthdays with a “0” at the end of it. So I’d better be well rested when I take off from somewhere near the Black Sea (presumably). Because I’ll be hitting the ground running.