A tale of two cities

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Slovakia  ,
Friday, October 6, 2006

I covered the 40km to Bratislava in 86km. Bike-route signposts lie. My first plan was to find a Jazz bar, since I wasn't intending to spend too long in Bratislava. I found free internet at the hostel too much of a draw, however, and ended up spending the night chatting on MSN. I realise this is not quite the travel experience I'm supposed to be having but everyone gets homesick sometimes.

The next morning I headed into town, to pound the streets of Bratislava. I'm getting the hang of this now and managed in one day to see the old town, the castle, parliament, palaces and look around a small and very esoteric art gallery. The old town is beautiful because even though the plaster is peeling in places, it is as yet unspoilt by glass-fronted shops and the golden arches. The roads and buildings of the old town seem to have been little changed over the centuries, although also little maintained.

The Primates Palace, in the town centre, houses the hall of mirrors, where the treaty with Napoleon (following his victory in 1805 in a battle that some historian will please advise) was signed. It is where city council meetings now take place. It is, as you might expect, a hall with mirrors on facing walls, so endless reflections curve into infinity to left and right. I'm sure I've read something about standing between mirrors being bad for the soul (Terry Pratchett, possibly) and it does seem odd. Didn't do Napoleon any good anyway. The palace also houses the "Bratislava Tapestries", which are unique, though I don't recall why, and depict the story of Hero and Oleander. Entry was free for all holders of expired student cards, which was a bonus.

The art gallery included an exhibition of Slovakian interpretations of the main movements in European art in the twentieth century, which was interesting and included some pieces that I really liked: a series of busts of a head, progressing from straining forward with a sense of vitality and urgency, through several stages of decay to an amorphous mass on a pedestal. A huge painting of a woodland scene, scanned and superimposed in the correct location within a photograph of the same scene. As well as obviously requiring a lot of technical expertise, the combination was more interesting than either the photo or painting alone. The experience was slightly hampered by their use of a self-devised system of hieroglyphics to label the pieces, which since I was never going to devote the time to learn it meant that they were effectively unlabelled, and the lack of an explanatory text in any language other than Slovakian. One of the curators didn't mind me taking photos, so you can see the good bits from her section.

The middle floor of the gallery consisted of nineteenth century portraiture, which I can appreciate for about a minute, max, before wanting to tear the ruff from an unspecified C19th nobleman's neck and shove it down his throat. Since each section of the gallery had its own curator who would get up and trail you as you wander round, presumably to stop you drawing moustaches on the paintings, my pace of appreciation led to a kind of relay race among those on duty, which only I seemed to find amusing...

The top floor was an exhibition of contemporary art, mostly consisting of paintings which reach into the room and become sculptures. They seemed to be based on fairy tales, and were accordingly garishly coloured images of sex and violence totally inappropriate for children.

The castle housed a small exhibition of Bratislava's most important archealogical finds, the most interesting of which was a tiny statue of a woman, about as tall as a thumb, amazingly precisely carved from Mammoth tusk thousands of years ago. The best views of the city and the Danube were also from the castle, so I spent some time just loitering.

In the evening, enthused by the Marriage of Figaro, I had intended to see somthing by Puccini that was on at the National Theatre. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived (two minutes after the show was due to start) they had run out of tickets. I quickly realised I was too hungry for opera anyway, and went in search of dinner.

I finished the day at a jazz bar I'd spotted earlier. The cheap cover charge and a very talented ensemble of E-guitar, bass and drums made up for Vienna's disappointment. I overheard the group on the next table ordering their drinks.
-Aha! You're English
Hoping to start some friendly banter
-We're Welsh
-Close enough (looking for some common ground) My girlfriend's at Uni in Cardiff
-You here on your own?
-Would you like to join us?
-Sure, if you don't mind...
-So, what are you doing here, if your girlfriend's in Cardiff?
An excellent question, and one I ask myself pretty much daily, but which has only one answer.

-You're doing what! That's incredible! OK, that's it, we are buying your drinks tonight, in exchange for which you have to send us a postcard when you get there.

A very enjoyable evening ensued, to complement a very interesting day.
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