November 26, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.
What you must understand about Bratislava is it is a machine powered by ghosts and built by the devil. You know will-o-the-wisps? Those lights that appear in swamps and lead men to their doom? They keep those in the streetlamps.
The city is a 4-dimensional M.C. Escher tesseract clusterfuck. Stairs lead to nowhere, walls barricade nothing, tunnels lead to dead-ends, sidewalks dissolve without warning. Every road is five lanes, there are no traffic lights, and there might be one crosswalk in the city, somewhere. God knows I couldn’t find it.
I got off the bus into a rogue arctic storm and made my way along the side of the highway until there stopped being a sidewalk. A sign with a pedestrian on it was posted on the bridge, but there were no sidewalks, no walkways, and about two feet of space between the active lanes and the 60-foot drop into the ice river.
“That can’t… there’s no way,” I said to the cars that blew past me. “What if there’s someone with children? Or in a wheelchair? Or both?”
I hopped the guardrail and climbed down a steep, grassy hill that would also prove challenging for a wheelchair, then found my way to a bike track that wound around another bus stop and to the strange concrete underwalks of the highway bridge.
It was passing this bus stop that I froze and yelled “FUCK!”, startling the bejesus out of everybody waiting in line.
My hat. My Wanderhut. I left it in the luggage rack on the FlixBus.
My skull was cold, but at least I didn’t look like a communist any more. I called up Epictetus’ cup speech. For those who don’t know it by heart:
“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind, or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond, – for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal, – and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.”
Or, more digestibly:
I popped my collar like a Dracula to get some of the wind off my exposed, delicate skin, then tried to navigate my way back onto the bridge again. And that’s about when I noticed the UFO.
I got closer.
Yeah, no, there’s just a whole H.G. Wells situation up on the bridge.
After careful consideration, I decided to day drink in it.
It’s called the UFO Tower bar and restaurant for reasons that should be obvious. You cough up 7 Euro and a terrifyingly fast elevator shoots you like in the Jetsons almost 300 feet (85m) into the air, whereupon you have three options:
- Go to the roof deck and die in the wind
- Go to the slightly overpriced bar that’s still cheaper than anything in Vienna
- Go to the “fine dining” restaurant and get like three mouthfuls of burnt exotic cheese or whatever
Two outta three ain’t bad.
They had exactly one beer on tap, so that’s what I got. It was their national beer, as is standard in Europe, but Slovakia broke the mold by having beer that was kind of good. It was like a lager that had been hanging out with a lot of Weißbier.
I took the rocket tube back to the ground and fought my way over the highway and into the endless, horrible maze that was Bratislava. At first, I had grand aspirations about hiking up to the ruins of Devin Castle, about 5 miles outside of town. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday though, and the cold was starting to set in. It wouldn’t be a hike so much as fives miles of attempting to navigate the Hogwarts-ass shifting walkways that line a major highway. I tossed it into the “maybe tomorrow” column and went looking for food.
Instead, I found a surly Russian girl who was just as baffled by the “infrastructure” as I was. She was reticent, undoubtedly due to the beautiful weather, so it was only begrudgingly that we joined forces and found our way to Bratislava Castle. A mountain she insisted on climbing in boots with 6-inch heels. We all suffer for our art, I suppose.
That, and iterations of that, was my view for around 45 minutes of uphill climbing. I understand completely how Bratislava Castle has been standing for so long. It’s utterly impregnable. Assuming you somehow bread-crumb your way through the disastrous snarl of a city, you have to untangle the snarl of dead-end paths and unnecessary staircases that loop around Castle Hill, which was, mercifully, open.
The castle itself now serves as a museum, which was closed, but I wouldn’t have gone in anyway. The courtyard was nothing but high white walls and a well. I tried to take a panorama of it but it turns out panoramas don’t work great with perfectly square vistas.
I thought about eating at the Hraz Restaurant (hraz means Castle in every language I don’t speak), but a 15 Euro foie gras didn’t even sound appealing. I just wanted some carbohydrates, man. I’d been running all day on a half-boxtle of Munter und Aktiv.
I climbed down the mountain and dropped back into Bratislava Centrum, aka Behind Lucifer’s TV, and tried like hell to find anything. Food. An open store. A beer. My way. Anything. It wasn’t meant to be. I meandered aimlessly for another frozen half-hour before finding the city’s only crosswalk, crossing, backtracking to Old Town and discovering it was not, in fact, a commercial hub like every other Old Town in every other city in the world, but rather, some weird sculptures and a Subway restaurant.
I couldn’t find a single restaurant. I found a minimart, but I wasn’t about to eat Pop Keks for Meal. After orienting myself, I charged through this aerial view circuit diagram directly to my hostel.
The girl behind the desk was as tall as me. My fury dissipated like Bratislava’s sidewalks. I’d heard tales of this, but I’d never actually encountered such a thing in the wild. But she wasn’t built like an Amazon, she was reedy and thin. How could this occur? Isn’t this a natural impossibility, like bumblebee flight or whatever?
“And if there’s anything else you need, we are open 24 hours.”
“I need food,” I said. “So badly.”
She scribbled on a map, alternating between Slovak words I had no chance in hell of reading, let alone pronouncing, and misspelled English words. Turns out, hidden in the catacombs of Centrum, there was a traditional Slovak restaurant (that looked like an abandoned factory) and a craft brewery (that was actually built into the basement of a hotel). I thanked her, dumped my backpack, and scurried back into the night.
Traditional Slovak food saved this trip for me. I got a booth to myself. For some reason, they were playing Alien Ant Farm. I ordered sauerkraut soup and something that was described as “chicken leg and vegetables (served in pan)”.
The soup was incredible. The sauerkraut took a backseat to the barbecue taste, and I was almost through the bowl by the time I realized it tasted like liquid kielbasa. The fact that disks of kielbasa were floating in it only amplified this effect.
Then came the alleged chicken leg.
All right, first of all, that’s not veggies, that’s cheesy potatoes and bacon. The chicken was in there, but so were huge cubes of ham, and more kielbasa. How you gonna use kielbasa as a seasoning?
I barely finished it all. Nearly weeping, I requested the bill.
In Vienna, 6 euros won’t even buy you air.
I paid, wrote at the hostel for a while, then opted to check out this microbrewery. The stout was too many colors, and tasted too fruity, but the price was right.
I staggered back to the hostel and slept with only mild interruption from solipsist mouth-breathers turning on the overhead light. I waited until they started rooting around in their little lockers then climbed down and shut the lights off.
It’s 3 AM. There are other people, you prick. Use your bed lamp or phone light like a human being.
I woke at the crack of dawn, stealthed into the hallway bathroom, and spent a half hour skinning my face with a disposable razor. It was an absolute bloodbath. More blood in the sink than water. But hey, I don’t look like Davos Seaworth anymore. Now I look like a teenage knife fighter who isn’t particularly adept at knife fighting.
I saw the rest of Centrum on my way to the bus station. It was like all other tourist traps. The food was price-gouged and for some reason the t-shirts were 15 Euros. Do they know the beer is 3 Euros? Do they know how many beers equal a t-shirt? In America, it’s a 2 or 3 beer to 1 t-shirt equivalency exchange. Ridiculous. I didn’t want to commemorate my half a day that badly. It’d be like spending 90 chicken nuggets on a souvenir for the Deep Freeze in Mario 64.
So long, Slovakia. Thanks for all the cholesterol. Next stop…