Bratislava, Armpit of Europe

Trip Start Aug 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Flag of Slovakia  ,
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Some English bloke wakes the whole dorm at 7am with an awkward and loudly unacrobatic leap from the top bunk, followed by repeated slamming of the stubborn bathroom door. Suddenly wide awake, I pack, have breakfast and check out. The Bled YHA is a very recommendable hostel, with clean and attractive facilities. My only problem is with the main reception lady, with whom I have another argument about beds whilst checking out.

As it happens, I am grateful to the clumsy Pom for waking me up because I arrive at the train station nicely in time for the train to Vienna. I don't know how often the Bled to Vienna line runs but it can't be more than a couple of times a day. My mission today is to get to Bratislava, spend the night there and then meet Jane at the airport tomorrow. Should be no problem.

The train rattles cheerfully through the Julian Alps, passing jagged mountains, turquoise lakes, pointy-topped pine forests sprinkled with little houses inhabited by yodelling goatherds and milk maids named Heidi, and the occasional castle perched precariously in some militarily advantageous position. After six hours, the train slides silently to a halt at Vienna's main station, with typical Germanic punctuality, at precisely the scheduled time of 3:02pm. Wait, it's actually 3:03pm - clearly the Austrians don't have the same care for timekeeping as the Germans. Then I have one more short journey to Bratislava, Slovakia - my third country of the day.

And, by far, my least favourite, judging by the difficulty involved in getting from the train station to the hotel. The first clue that I am in a whole new environment comes at the bureau de change as I attempt to change my bundle of Slovenian tolars into Slovak korunas. "Dobre den!" I shout happily to the girl behind the thick plastic screen and start to hold up my wad of tolars. She just shakes her head and glares at me with an expression of complete disdain. "Oh, you don't take these?" I continue, pulling out my much smaller wad of Euros that I have been hoping to save for later "What about these then?" The girl just gestures with as little physical exertion as possible for me to place my Euros in the little tray and she completes the transaction without lifting her head or saying a word.

Okay, I think, bad start; write it off and carry on. The girl at the information desk is more helpful, although she too is shielded from my potentially dangerous inquiries by a thick plexiglass window. What are they afraid of - that I would reach over and steal some information? Maybe directions to the bus stop or a tip for a great Italian restaurant? Anyway, she directs me to the bus stop without me having to resort to violence and instructs me to take the #204 bus to a stop named Bulharska. "It's easy", she says, ominously.

The bus stop is, indeed, easy to find and, within minutes, the #204 comes trundling along, packed with rush hour commuters. Clutching my newly exchanged handful of cash I waddle, laden with luggage, to the driver's door and climb aboard. I hold out money in a hopeful manner but the driver just yells at me, in what I think is German, basically saying I can't buy tickets from him and I have to buy them from the nearby machine. So, justifying every stereotype of the bumbling tourist, I back out of the bus as all its impatient passengers cast pissed-off glances at me and mention to the person sitting next to them how stupid foreigners are.

I find the machine and it is helpfully labelled in English. However, it only accepts coins and, of course, I only have notes, not yet having broken any. No problem, I'll buy something at this little kiosk up here and use the change for my ticket. However, when I look at the change the lady gives me, it is a bunch more notes plus some small coins that don't add up to the amount needed for the "30 minute" ticket I require. "Pochka", I say to the lady ("wait") and gesture at the 20 koruna note she's just given me, then back at the still-open cash register, indicating that I'd like two 10 koruna coins instead. "For ticket?" she asks. "Yes!" I say, optimistically. "Machine", she says curtly and looks towards the next customer. "But it doesn't take notes!" I cry plaintively, knowing she won't understand me. "Prosim, dva" ("please, two") I continue, pointing at the bulging compartment of 10 koruna coins in the register. "Nie - machine" she snaps in that this-is-the-end-of-this-conversation voice and she slams the register shut with a flourish to accentuate that I cannot win this one. I am a little pissed off at this stage but I don't know how to express myself. So, as I slink away from the little kiosk, I mutter "jebem ta" ("fuck you") and flick my hand from my chin, believing this to be a pan-European gesture. I later find out that it doesn't mean anything in Slovakia. It must be Italian.

Anyway, I have enough coins to by a "10 minute" ticket so I decide to do that and then play the ignorant tourist if I get caught. Fortunately I don't get caught and the bus splutters through the ugly, grey, soulless streets of Bratislava. I have no idea where in the hell Bulharska is though. The driver is, naturally, protected from his passengers by a thick plexiglass screen without even a speaking hole. The passengers who I ask, in Slovak, if they speak English just plain ignore me, as though they have been phoned by the passengers of the previous #204 and told to look out for a stupid, possibly insane, foreigner with a large backpack and a confused expression.

I get off the bus somewhere and through a protracted series of backtracks, dangerous but brief excursions onto highways, broken Slovak requests for help with passersby, and more than a small helping of luck, I find my lodging.

The Hotel Plus is located on a back street, nestled anonymously next to a collection of identically characterless apartment blocks. Following a long check-in conducted almost entirely in Slovak (does no one in this godforsaken town speak English?) I head to my room. I had booked this place because it was, supposedly, near the airport and I figured I might like the relative luxury of a hotel after a week in hostels. Well, if luxury was what I was looking for, I sure won't find it here. It is effectively a hostel where you have the room to yourself but with none of the charm of a hostel. The key to my room opens directly into a shower/toilet and on either side are further locked doors - 304a and 304b. One of these is mine but the shower/toilet arrangement is very publicly mine and my neighbour's. The room itself has no TV, no phone, just two thin beds, some unvarnished kitset furniture and a panoramic view of the apartment block complex below.

Contemplating this scene makes me hungry so I walk fifty metres down the ugly road to, of all things, an Indian restaurant. It is surprisingly genuine, complete with Gandhi posters, statues of Vishnu and decent food. However, by the time I finish there it is only 8:30 and I'm not quite ready for bed. Right next door is the "K-Bar", whose sandwich board outside promises great things. Inside, however, it is a cavernous hall with a small bar at one end, propped up by two sad-looking guys with mullets, and cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. The sign outside the hotel says "internet" so I ask the nightshift guy on reception if I can use the computer to check my e-mail. "Can't you see it is broken?" he asks with a totally condescending tone. "No, I can't," I reply, looking for any sign to this effect, "is it?"
"Yes, it is broken."
"Oh. Okay", I say and look around the bare lobby for other sources of entertainment. "So, there is no TV, no bar, no internet. What is there to do here?"
Without any pause, which suggests to me that he has been asked this question before, the guy points to a classroom-style chair in the corner of the lobby, next to a plastic plant. "Sitting", he says without the slightest hint of humour. Right, early night tonight, I think.
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