Nothing says Thanksgiving like Bratislava. At least, that was our thought process. Well, the fact that it was dirt cheap to fly to on Ryanair was a minor factor as well. We essentially wanted to go away for the holiday and we had yet to take an excursion off of the British Isles, so we searched Skyscanner, a highly recommended app for airfare in Europe. We can simply search from any airport in London, enter the dates, and Skyscanner spits out a list of countries, sorted by price. Click on the country and it will show you what cities you can fly to and the cost of each. We based our decision on those results. We were able to book two round trips for £120. Who knew it would be so cheap to fly to Bratislava in winter?
In case you are still wondering but afraid to ask the question, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia. It is located on the Danube River, bordering Austria, only about 60km from Vienna. It formed part of Czechoslovakia, before the fall of Communism in the late 1980s. Initially arriving in the city, the negative effect of Communism on architecture was quite clear. There are a lot of generic, rectangular, cement housing blocks, which seemed especially hollow during the winter, with grey skies and lack of flora. Here is the international train station that welcomes you to town – not exactly St. Pancras, is it?
Luckily, the old town has been refurbished in the last ten years and is the base of most tourists in the city. Cobble stone streets, beautiful buildings, narrow pedestrian alleyways. It felt old classically European, at least to us Americans. There is even a castle overlooking the city. The bonus of visiting at this time of year was the Christmas market in the center of the old town. Loads of food and craft stalls, selling all sorts of trinkets, as well as potent hot, red wine based punches spiked with brandy or cherry liqueur.
We did a search on TripAdviser and found a great place to stay called the Skaritz Hotel. Located in the heart of the old town, it was very convenient to all of the sites as well as the rail station. We booked a special online and got a deal for 3 nights for €200. We did not know what to expect, but it had solid reviews and was a great deal. Boy, this worked out well. We had a huge one bedroom suite, limited use of the mini bar for free (mimosas at 10am. Hell yeah!) and breakfast included, which was a massive buffet spread that was delicious. Dear diary: jackpot.
We spent our few days in the city exploring, walking around the castle grounds and through the picturesque streets. We had great meals as well, which was a little surprising because I personally was a little unsure of the Slovak cuisine going into the trip. It was surprisingly light and full of beautiful organic vegetables, highlighted with small quantities of lean protein. Oh, sorry. My mistake. Read my notes wrong. The cuisine was a full on meat and fat fest, with nothing green anywhere. Sausages, cheese, giant crispy pork knuckles, Wiener schnitzel, cabbage. If you are into spa cuisine or, worse, a vegan, Bratislava would be your personal hell. To top it off, all meals were washed down with giant mugs of Pilsner. Our first meal was at a funny little place called Cafe Verne, where Julie had Halousky, a sheep milk cheese gnocchi with cream and bacon. Literally, a massive plate of white, with occasion splash of caramel brown from cubes of fatty bacon. Delicious but made you hate yourself later. Sort of like Thanksgiving dinner.
A major selling point of Bratislava is its close proximity to Vienna. We were able to make it to Vienna by train in just over an hour for €26 round trip for both of us. Vienna is staggeringly pretty, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. The baroque architecture of Vienna was incredible, with ornate details on every building, and in stark contrast to the utilitarian Communist structures of Bratislava. We spent some time in a coffee house (Cafe Central: the most beautiful coffee house in the world), but mostly just wondered the streets. We also hit the Christmas markets, which were shocking in both their number and size. I thought Americans loved Christmas. The Viennese put us to shame.
The highlight of the trip though was our tour with Authentic Slovakia Tours. We decided the day before to book a private 5 hour hiking tour (€49 per person) of two castle ruins outside of Bratislava in the Little Carpathian Mountains. Our guide Peter was very engaging and lead us to two ruins from the 14th century, both of which offered stunning views of the Slovakian countryside. It is always rewarding to book these types of tours, to converse with a local to gain insight on the culture and its history. We talked politics, religion, language. Something that you would not get from a large, impersonal tour bus.