I was on my way to the beautiful town of Banska Stiavonica in Slovakia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AKA really beautiful), when the train out of Bled was late. Trains in Eastern Europe were late half the time, but when they involved Slovenia they were late every time.
Ulrica, a German woman who’d gone hiking around here while her boyfriend was stuck at work, was my unplanned travel buddy. Together we arrived at the Plan B Café outside the train station in the Austrian town of Villach and explored it for the hour we had. Villach seemed to exist entirely around its train station. The view from the river was nice, but other than that it was several streets of restaurants and shops, a church, and nothing else. Where I expected to see houses on the outskirts were bare mountains. Where was the woman with a briefcase going so quickly? The only reason I can see anyone visiting Villach is to wait for another train.
We parted in Vienna and from there I went to Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, but by the time I arrived there the next train to Banska Stiavonica wasn’t until the next morning. I threw up my hands; I wasn’t going to run from city to city. Abandoning the original plan, I plopped down in Bratislava for the next two days.
But I had no hostel, no data plan on my phone for Slovakia with which to look it up, and no patience anymore, so I wandered around town, ready to stay in the first hostel I found, which I knew I would stumble into eventually; Eastern Europe is replete with hostels. It is a backpacker’s dream.
I stumbled into Hostel Blues. Its apartment building is hard to miss with its garish neon blue “HOSTEL BLUES” sign, which I’m sure stirred resentment in the residents who lived in the apartment next door to the cheap party seekers’ haven. Indeed it was a bit of a party hostel, but then Bratislava is a bit of a party place, a sort of carefree, crummy, easygoing city where UK students came for the weekend for a cheap holiday. Why drink and club expensively in London when you can do the same thing for 1/6 of the cost (literally) by catching a cheap flight? Besides being cheaper, Eastern Europe is now equally accessible, safer, and, in my opinion, ten times more fun. All sure signs that it will one day soon be pillaged to death by waves of tourists (see: Prague).
I’d heard the city described as “a shit hole.” Run down, crumbling, and unsightly, it kind of was, but I liked it. I didn’t love it, but it was a nice place to be. For a major city, people were easy going and it felt so safe I walked down derelict streets in the most lighthearted spirit. But then, with less than 500,000 people, it’s smaller than Baltimore.
Bratislava has its share of nice cafes, clubs, art galleries, restaurants, and music. It’s just not known for any of these. It’s a low key kind of city, and the area of the old town by St. Martin’s church, where the old buildings are in such a state of disrepair they look almost like ruins, is fun to explore. I stumbled into a lot of intriguing cafes and a music club somewhere behind a heavy wooden door that didn’t look like it led to an active venue. The only way I knew was by the paper flier taped to it with a list of recent concerts and shows.
I found that trendy café/teahouse and bookstore I always look for not far from the hostel. It was called Axioma (they always have such cool names) and it was a nice place to hang out. People had this sense of just being there for a relaxing, enjoyable time and not being high strung about much. The interior looked sort of like a classy and less cluttered antique furniture shop, with mismatched tables of all shapes and couches. People smoked cigarettes inside. Nearly everyone in Europe smokes cigarettes (one of the biggest differences between European and American life), but this was the only place where they smoked inside a café. Like Budapest, Bratislava felt lax, but lacked the grandeur of vast space and imposing buildings that tower over you, again because it was much more low key. And it was here that I saw my favorite thing in all of Europe. I don’t care that it stood outside a kitsch shop and had “souvenirs!” written all over it. It was a painting of a little girl with a lamp wandering through cobblestone streets at night up toward a castle, through a surreally bent and twisted town. It looked exactly as I felt.
St. Martin’s Cathedral was one of my favorite churches. It looks like it hasn’t been touched up since the 13th century, and right next door is a house with a crumbling wall that features colorful art in its windows. This spot is a gem.
From there you cross under the highway and start climbing up a hill with of broken cobblestone streets to get to the castle, where on the castle side the houses here are more elaborate but still falling apart, reminding me a bit of Budapest again. The trip to the castle was the highlight of my stay. The view from it is breathtaking. As long as you don’t look to the right across the river to the gray industrial sea.
I had three roommates, all very unique. First I met an anthropology student from Vienna who’d decided that his life needed more travel and came to see Bratislava for the first time and meet people. Next walked in a biker from Germany but originally from Chile, dressed all in black leather. The two of them spoke to each other in German before the biker dropped off his stuff and left somewhere. Right before the Viennese guy and I headed out to dinner, a thin, blonde man from Canada with a heavily pockmarked face and sunglasses came in. He had a restless, disturbed air about him and after introductions, the first thing he told us about was a shooting that recently happened in Toronto.
We both simultaneously thought to lock up our stuff before heading out. I borrowed the biker’s jacket for the cold weather and left a note on his bed explaining.
At around three in the morning, I woke up to the sound of an unfamiliar voice speaking in German. The speaker seemed to be stumbling around the room, disorientated, before collapsing onto a bed. In the morning, the Canadian guy was nowhere to be found and the other two and I turned to each other with the same question. Shortly the Canadian guy came back to the room and it turned out that he also spoke German.
The other two and I got breakfast at café Shtoor, another nice place, and talked for a while about our travel experiences. The German Chilean biker had one habit I liked and had never heard of before: when wandering around a new place he tuned in to the local radio. We parted for the last time after breakfast, and I headed off on a hunt for cheap jeans and a long sleeve shirt, as I was unprepared for the impending Autumn weather of Eastern Europe. I trekked through some pretty dingy streets to an empty mall and ultimately a thrift store where I found perfectly fitted jeans for 6 Euros and a shirt for 3. Along the way I was stopped by a man who asked me for money. Maybe his being enthusiastic about my speaking Russian softened my heart; for whatever reason, I gave him the little change in my pocket and went on.
I ran into the Canadian guy repeatedly at and around the hostel. Even the briefest interactions always left an unnerving impression on me, though we exchanged very few words. The next morning as I walked back to the train station at the early hour of 9, I stopped into a café just opening for a morning coffee. I was the first customer and the owner seemed reluctant about, well, moving. Emptily watching some Slovak news program as the minutes passed, I then walked out and there was the Canadian guy sitting outside the coffee shop, smoking. We talked for a minute and I told him I was on my way out. “Good luck with everything,” he said, and it sounded like one the most sincere wishes I’d heard. You can never really know a person.