20 days. 5 countries. 1,262km/784 miles by train and bus. Our last trip in Europe before we move to Asia: here we go.
We flew into Austria then headed to Slovakia, Slovenia, technically Italy, and Croatia. We were armed with a small backpack, a duffel bag and a 25 page word document spelling our hotels, bus schedules and things we could do. We didn’t want to waste any of our time in a hotel room researching things to do next. And in the end we had a nearly perfect vacation. Possibly one of the best adventures of our lives. We hiked the alps, attended free concerts, made candy, got in a small bus crash, had the best wines ever, tried a skiing simulator, and ate horse. Adventure was truly out there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We flew to Vienna just like last year -it’s a cheap direct flight vs connecting in Madrid or Barcelona. Vienna is both a been-there-done-that kinda place and a far too expensive to function place…so we didn’t stay long. Instead we took a very easy 1 hour bus to Bratislava.
Let’s talk about Bratislava.
The population of Slovakia is 5 million and Bratislava makes up 400,000 of those people. It is a nice and quiet little capital city. Very cute with pretty buildings – quaint alleyways, pastel colored apartments, gingerbread roofs, and sometimes the occasional Stalinist/brutalist bit of architecture. It’s quiet, too. Most people who visit are only day trippers – taking a boat from Vienna for the day or a bus from Budapest. We stayed for four whole nights which was enough to enjoy a very small area.
We thought that Bratislava was amazing. Maybe our favorite large city in Europe. But it gets a bad reputation from movies like Hostel or Euro Trip (a movie clip, worth the watch). But Bratislava (and Slovakia) are very modern, clean and friendly. The clip makes fun of the exchange rate- Slovakia uses Euros now so we didn’t need to convert any of the money we already had in our wallet. However, the cost is cheaper than Spain (and especially cheaper than their neighbor, Austria). For example you can get a simple coffee for €3 in Vienna but for the same price in a very fancy Bratislavan cafe we got a “selfie-cinno” where they print your picture on the top of a coffee. These are going for over 6 euros in other places so we were loving Bratislava’s prices. For those curious: it uses the same technology as an ink printer but uses coffee extract instead of ink. Here’s ours:
When we arrived in Bratislava we immediately went to one of the Christmas markets there. It was hard to resist because the entire city smelled like delicious sausages and onions. It was wild, the whole walk on the bridge across the Danube we could smell the fatty grilled scent of sausages wafting over from one of the Christmas markets. Bratislava’s tourist website says there are 9 different Christmas markets so we were spoiled for choice. We went to both Hviezdoslav’s Square and the Old Town Hall one but Hviezdoslav’s Square was cheaper and less busy. Euro Trip makes fun of Bratislava saying “it’s a good thing you came in the summer, it gets very depressing in the winter.” But no, it was perfect. The weather was mild, no colder than in Spain at the time (around 8C/46F). The Christmas lights were cheery and they decorated huge trees with Christmas ornaments. The sky is drab but that really just makes it feel more wintery.
The most popular thing to get at the markets are Cigánska Pečienkas “gypsy roasts”. Pork or chicken fried in onions served on a roll with more onions and a slather of mustard. Of course there were the sausages we had been smelling, Klobása. They didn’t have rolls but served it with sliced bread and loads of mustard. The drinks were also different from the usual German Christmas markets. Of course they had mulled wine/Glühwein (Punč in Slovak), they had local wine, shots of local berry schnapps and Medovina, hot honey wine. It was insanely sweet, sweeter than any mead we’ve ever had. But good.
There were very few signs with English. And some stands had people who didn’t speak English at all. Chris was a hero, though, and learned the most important words. Hello, thank you, yes, no, that, 1, 2, and 4. We always order one of something to share, two of something for each of us, or 4 to have two each. But we never need 3 or more than for of anything, so why bother learning those numbers? Chris was a champion, waltzing up to sausage salesmen and saying “jedna cigánska pečienka a jedna klobása.” Not bad for someone who studied the language on the bus over. To celebrate Chris tried “turbo punč” everyone makes turbo punch differently, some people just add more booze to mulled wine, or even black tea. No, this one had absinthe in it. Absinthe was made illegal in the USA in 2007 so it’s one of those things we try whenever we can in Europe for fun.
Day 1: Exploring Bratislava
We had an appointment with a candy shop – Bon Manufaktur. We don’t even eat hard candy but that wasn’t the point. We wanted to make candy. It was a super cute candy shop with cheap souvenirs and really good candy. The air smelled like fruit and sugar but not in a sickly sweet way. All the kids in the area were on field trips (heck our kids back at home were, too) so we shared the candy store with some fourth graders who were also making candy. We missed the initial demonstration but for only 5 euros we made “head of bear” lollipops. The man was super nice but didn’t speak English that well. So in a thick accent he directed us to “make nose of bear” “now make ears of bear.” It worked great! He used a creme brulee torch to heat it up. He turned a piece of candy the size of a loaf of bread into a small, finger-width. He kept rolling it and pulling on it to make it smaller. We rolled this up into the usual lollipop roll then pushed a stick into it. He used scissors to cut some pieces and heated it up again with the torch. We molded these pieces into “nose of bear” shapes and pushed circle pieces into ears.
Eyes and mouth were made out of little candies they already had laying around. We had to wait just a few minutes for it to dry/harden. It was a really interesting experience, I’ve never rolled candy out and was surprised how much you had to push to change the shape.
We saw Michalská brána “Michael’s Gate”, which is the final remnant of the medieval city gate. Inside there is a small arms museum and great views over the city.
Our tickets include entry to a pharmacy museum. It was interesting to think about how to store medicines safely (some metals could contaminate the medicine inside while glass let too much light in). Ceramic works great, though. Also they use a lobster as the symbol of medicine/pharmacology.
We headed to Slovak Pub which sounds like its for tourists but it was filled with students ordering huge liters of beer and eating entire shared-sample-platters by themselves. Slovak Pub is also cool because they have their own farm and grow their own bread, brew their own beer and make redcurrant wine.
We got the platter for two people. It had sheep cheese dumplings, 5 sheep cheese pierogies, and dumplings with cabbage and bacon. Very cheesy. We also shared kapustnica – a sauerkraut soup with sausage. On a whim I tried my new favorite thing ribezlak – red currant wine (it has a friend Ribezlove black currant wine). Like Chris trying absinthe because you can’t get it in America I love currants. They were illegal in many parts of America because people believed it carried a fungus that would harm the lumber industry. In wine form it smells like candy, but it is so fresh. It tastes like summer in a bottle.
Then went exploring around. We saw the president’s palace?? a famous blue church and the so-called Ugliest Building in the world. A great upside-down pyramid that houses the radio and TV offices.
We went to see Freedom Square which is the coolest place in Bratislava. It was originally Called Gottwald Square with a statue of Klement Gottwald, the first communist president of Slovakia. In the 80s they replaced the statue with a fountain, and in 1989 they changed to name to celebrate freedom from communism. The whole area was built around honoring communist ideals, so the surrounding buildings look the part
It looks drab and depressing, but it’s actually super cool. Most of the surrounding buildings are part of a university campus, and the whole area is crawling with students.
We went up to the old Soviet Memorial. Things were still in cyrillic and it was a memorial to the Russian soldiers who died taking western Slovakia from the Nazis in WWII. All in all, +16,000 Russian Soldiers died in this region, and 6,845 are buried under this memorial.
We were horrified when the sun start setting at about 3:30. The sun sets around 5:30 back in Mallorca so we were caught off guard. The only thing left for us to do was to head back to the Christmas market. We were searching for a specific alcohol that Slovakians traditionally drink while hiking, taking a shot every kilometer. We wanted it because it’s a “tea liqueur”, and we’ve never even seen that before. It’s actual amazing, kind of like a sweetened black tea with vodka thrown in. It made sense to drink this today, because the next day was going to be a hiking adventure.