Bratislava, Slovakia

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The so-called ugly duckling of Europe is actually an overlooked-and underpriced-swan of the Danube

The Europe of old is not dead. For travelers who yearn to know what it was like two generations ago, before it succumbed to heedless, unplanned modernity, there is one last untouched city, an ancient capital, in the middle of the Continent, where Europe's fading pleasures linger. Completely genuine, still uncloying, it rewards only those visitors who seek to learn about it. Built to human proportions on the banks of Europe's most famous river, Bratislava is largely unvisited by Americans. By night its cafes pulse with the energy of thousands of gorgeous students. By day it's a living museum to the twentieth century's failed institutions, where vestiges of a wobbly monarchy, the Iron Curtain, and the Velvet Revolution collide in one easygoing city.

For centuries, it was a crucible for world history, yet today its prices are as tiny as its emerging economy. Entire meals, beer and all, cost $2, beds go for $25 or less. Antiquity-packed museums are 50¢ . Even marked-up drinks from the hotel minibar cost but 45¢. Nothing overwhelms a modest budget.

Hidden in plain sight

Slovakia's current disadvantages breed some sour grapes: "We are the only European country where Communism came from the west-from Prague," lamented Martin, a well-traveled young Slovak whom I met on a quiet Sunday morning in the old town (star? mesto). Since the Czechs outnumber and outpace the Slovaks, blaming Prague (and not, say, St alin) for Slovakia's hobbled economy is something of a national pastime. The Communists were sent packing after 1989's Velvet Revolution, after which avaricious Slovakian politicos like Vladim'r Mec~iar, eager to rule a fiefdom of their own, seized the moment to manipulate a divorce from the Czech Socialist Republic. For Slovakia, stocked with Soviet-era heavy industry and little else, it was a foolish move. "We were a 15-million-person state in central Europe. That was something!" sighed Juraj, another Slovakian acquaintance. "Now we're only five million."

Some Bratislavs, who affectionately drub their city as "the ugly duckling of Europe," now see themselves as beggars at a banquet, their faces pressed to the window of the global party. But the budget tourist finds benefits to its trailing behind. Bratislava has no hordes of jostling foreigners, no hornet-like Vespa traffic, no money traps. Its tourism is nascent, not canned, and attracts with the vigor of freshness-it's a genuine European city hidden in plain sight.

Bratislava is also a modern city. Of a population of 450,000, some 60,000 are students-a breathtakingly good-looking crowd zapping each other with SMS text messages, forsaking Russian lessons for English, and generally lending the city a blithe mood. Yet the political upheavals of the twentieth century left the Iron Curtain in rusty evidence. The old town's baroque palaces and medieval city walls are cleaved by a nasty highway (a legacy of cavalier Communists, who did incalculably more damage than World War II bombing ever did). Restaurants still cook meals one course at a time. Stores and museums sometimes close when they're supposed to be open. Berlin, Prague, and Budapest quickly swept away the habits of oppression, but poorer Slovakia is growing up around them. Today, it's one of the few places in central Europe where the old bloc still casts long shadows. In fact, beyond city limits, many Slovaks have never met a Yankee in the ir lives.

Curiosity is rewarded

A healthy impulse is to begin touring at the somewhat severe four-towered Hrad (Castle) crouching over the city, which Slovaks liken to an overturned table. The Hrad (most dramatically reached by torturous staircase from the foot of the Novy(r) most, or "New Bridge") is a 1968 reconstruction of a once pitifully neglected ruin. There's not much to it except historical exhibits (though Parliament sits next door), but regarding the slanty jumble of the old town from its ramparts is a highlight of any visit.

The city's other most prominent landmark is the towering Novy(r) most (built in 1972)-a glaring remnant of the Soviet s' incongruous utopian ideals. Sure enough, it looks like a beastly Tomorrowland knockoff. Pay 10Sk (24¢) to ride to the top, where there's a restaurant, Kaviaren~ Bystrica (02/6241-2450). Locals bemoan the prices (100Sk for a sundae 250Sk for an entr?e!); Americans will be pleased to pay only $2.36 for a sundae, $5.89 a dinner, especially with such views over the Danube. Turn around and check the walls, too, which still bear bas-reliefs of the proletariat toiling for the State. From the back windows, survey the crumbling regiments of Petrz~alka's Communist-built estates, now going condo, but inhuman nonetheless-a third of Bratislavs live there. Take a long look: Europe is fond of whitewashing history by erasing blatantly inappropriate projects.

The Reds nearly had their way with the gothic D-m sv Martina (St. Martin's Cathedral), too; party bosses expressed contempt for religion by bulldozing a highway through the Jewish quarter and within inches of its facade. The interior , where 250 years of Hungarian monarchs were crowned, is now stark.

The Mozeum dopravy (Technical Museum; S~ancovO 1, 20Sk/47¢) inhabits the city's old train station (near the current station) and houses a collection of rare eastern European vehicles (some 50 cars, 25 motorcycles, 15 trucks, and more). You don't have to be a gearhead to appreciate its well-preserved Cold War relics: S~kodas, Tatras, and the paddy wagon of bygone tyranny, a '64 Volga Gaz 215 police car with blue and white stripes. A few other fun museums, both in the former Jewish quarter across the highway from D-m sv Martina, include the Mestsk? mozeum (City Museum; PrimaciOlne nOm. 3, 35Sk/83¢), a three-level (and often deserted) storehouse of Slovakian furniture and such. Tickets are also valid for a museum across the lane devoted to antique clocks-though none are ticking, ironically making it one of the Continent's quietest museums. Purists will enjoy the collection of the SlovenskO nOrodnO gal?ria (Slova kian National Gallery; Riec~na 1, 60Sk/$1.41), on the river, which addresses Slovakian history and local flora.

A few low-key day trips are accessible by city bus. West of town, the hilltop ruin of Dev'n Castle (40Sk/94¢; take bus 29), with its panorama of villages, river, and farmland, was the seat of a Moravian empire that crested 1,000 years ago. In the recent old days, Juraj told me, Bratislavs would picnic there just to gaze wistfully at Austria, only meters away but across a hopelessly fortified river. North of the city, in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, are vineyards, sleepy villages, and ruins galore. C~achtice Castle, now an eerie pile in the sky, was supposedly home to a mad countess who bathed in the blood of her female servants-a fairly common claim among eastern European castles. It's a short hike from the village of C~achtice, 90 minutes from the city. Of the area's castles, the most respectfully preserved is C~erveny(r) Kamen~, near C~astO, on the Small Ca rpathian wine route (tik.sk). It's an 800-year-old estate with hiking trails, Renaissance furnishings, falconry demonstrations, and English information (130Sk/$3.06). There are Celtic ruins in the forest beyond-one of Slovakia's many unexpected surprises is that the Celts (and the Swedes) had such a hand in shaping this history-beaten area of the world.

A thrilling tease: Out of town, be prepared to be a center of interest. Many Slovaks have lived in privation most of their lives and still can't afford to travel. I spent an afternoon with a jovial lodge-keeper near VelkO Javor~ina, in the mountains outside Bratislava. As he regaled me with colorful tales of Communist officials commandeering his establishment for secret drunken meetings-and as he plied me with 43¢ pivo (beer)-I noticed that patrons seemed to be staring at me. Finally, my new friend finished his story. "Excuse," he concluded, sheepishly. "May I please make your picture?" Americans, once the enemy, are now v iewed as exotic curios. (Where else in Europe is that still true?)

Exploration is rewarded in town, too. Bratislava's pedestrianized old town (unscathed by recent European flooding) is more than cobbled streets and weathered wooden doors. It's burrowed under with unmarked cabaret theaters, whittled from behind with surprise alley bistros, and in its quietest courtyards slumber mammoth winepresses, still hulking in the shadows from days when vineyards began beyond city gates. Unlike other cities, where the rich renovate old buildings down to the last plank, many of these interiors are original. Snooping is expected.

Poke around (to take just an example) Hlavn? nOmestie (Hlavn? Square), lined with baroque palaces in confectionery colors: marzipan green, custard lemon, and pudding white. East of the square, in a courtyard that otherwise might go unnoticed, is the PrimaciOlny palOc (Primate's Palace; free). Once the archbishop's winter home, it contains the world's only complete set of English tapestries, original to Charles I but mysteriously sealed under wallpaper in this palace for over a century. In the square itself at 10 p.m. nightly, lasers from the fourteenth-century MichalskO brOna (Michael's Gate) crisscross crooked streets to the StarO radnica (Old Town Hall) for a free, '80s-chic show; in summer, pavement cafes provide front-row seats. In the old town's lanes, rewards multiply: I routinely find no-cover jazz clubs, antique shops selling $45 wardrobe trunks, galleries offering distinct works for $20, and heirloom jewelry for less than $30. With simple patience, curious visitors reclaim the true pace and value of Europe's forgotten lifestyle.

Danube dreaming

The most memorable inns, though, are the "botels" (boat hotels) securely tied quayside. I'm enraptured by the sensation of drifting to sleep as reflections of the Danube, hastening to the Black Sea, flicker across my ceiling, so I love the Botel Gracia, near the National Gallery. All 30 cabins are giant, with at least three wide windows each, cable TV, private bathrooms-and virtually no rocking. The roof is a popular cafe with meager tariffs and a river breeze. (ROzusovo nObrez~ie, 02/5443-2132, botel-gracia.sk; $40/single and $56/double, including breakfast.)

If all the choices I've named are full at the time of your visit, there's always the 122-room Hotel Bar-nka (Mudrochova 2, 02/4488-2089, baronka.sk), a few miles' tram ride from the river. Its restaurant and pool buzz with foreign groups. Rooms are $27/single and $39/double, with breakfast.

Feeding mind and mouth 

Even trendy bistros, packed with the country's elite, are shockingly cheap. Take-away counters are in short supply (Slovaks prefer to eat in and so they haven't embraced fast food), but the profusion of low-cost cafes makes dining out easy. My quirky favorite is Pras~nO Bas~ta (ZOmoc~n'cka 11, 02/5443-4957), tucked near Michael's Gate, the best source of a meal so beloved it ought to be on the Slovakian flag: bryndzov? halus~ky (potato gnocchi with sheep cheese and bacon chunks-a peasant's delight).

Musicians serenade courtyard diners; regular acts include a piano-and-flute rendition of the Dallas theme and "Mission: Impossible" on the squeezebox. Just outside of the old town (in the ugly new town, or nov? mesto), on a busy student drag, there's KGB (ObchodnO 52, 02/5273-1279), serving standards like c~evapc~ic~i (spicy meatballs) and, of course, bryndzov? halus~ky, for around 60Sk ($1.41) a tummy-stuffer. And just across the New Bridge in Janko KrOl Park, Leberfinger (ViedenskO cesta 257, 02/6231-7590), with its jolly outdoor pub, is a noted source for fine Slovakian fare costing around $4.25. Napoleon is said to have provisioned here (then again, he also blew up Dev'n Castle, so no points there).

All cafes pull a perfect coffee-another Viennese touch-but in summer, finding a seat takes dedication. Butterfly Bistro (PanskO 8) is an arty haven, and The Dublin er (SedlOrska 6) attracts English-speakers. Once pub conversation begins, prepare for deep cultural exchange, and be warned that even 19-year-old Slovaks know more about the U.S. than you do.

Of the Slovakian beverages-many bracingly bitter-Zlaty(r) Baz~ant ("Golden Pheasant") beer is probably most beloved, and costs 25Sk to 40Sk (59¢ to 94¢) per hefty bottle. The soft drink of choice is white-grape Vinea tonic, 20Sk to 35Sk (47¢ to 83¢) a serving. To toast a Slovak, raise a little plum brandy, the national tipple, costing about 60¢ a knock, or some egg liquor (same price), which tastes like intoxicating vanilla pudding.

Once beers are drained, remind the residents of Europe's "ugly duckling" about what happened at the end of that tale. Even now, their city is becoming a swan. Everyone in Bratislava is young, exquisitely beautiful, carefree, and kissing each other at the tram stops, under church steeples, and at outdoor cafes. It's a city in springtime, and a marvelous place t o be.

Cultural quirks: Slovakia

YOUR SLOVAKATION

Bratislava's tourist office is at Klobuc~n'cka 2 in the old town (east of Hlavn? nOmestie), or call 02/5443-4370. Also: slovakiatourism.sk.

Bratislava is in a cluster of popular eastern European cities. To travel easily between them, get the European East Pass from Rail Europe (888/382-7245, raileurope.com), which costs $154 for five days of unlimite d travel throughout Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, and Hungary. To/from Vienna, it's an hour by rail, plus border crossing ($21); to/from Prague, four hours ($42); to/from Budapest, four hours ($27), or in summer take a ferry down the Danube (Fajnorovo nObrezie 2, 02/5293-2226, spap.sk; $59 one way, $83 round trip).

The Web site e-vacations.com (888/653-8242) sells a six-night air/hotel trip that stops in Bratislava for two nights (an industry rarity); it also visits Prague, Budapest, and supplies rail transfers. April 1 to June 15, it's $799 from New York, $959 Chicago, $1,079 L.A.

East of Bratislava, the Danube plain gives way to lush forest and the alpine High Tatras (for resort towns like Stary(r) Smokevec), medieval fortress towns (Levoc~a), and some of Europe's most picturesque castles (Spis~sky(r) hrad). Use an East Pass to explore Slovakia.

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