Welcome to the only post that will cover two cities!
Saturday, June 27th
Leaving Prague meant catching another early morning train. The ride was pretty forgettable because I didn’t write any notes about it except that I took a nap and I don’t even have any pictures from it. We did arrive in Vienna early enough that we couldn’t check into the hostel. That was fine, it gave us time to search for food, right? I guess the Viennese aren’t too keen on restaurants. We were kind of in the suburbs so we took the bus into town where it looked like there were a lot of shops around, which usually means that there would also be lots of restaurants too. The only eateries in the area were either the Middle Eastern fast food that’s ubiquitous throughout much of Europe or cafes. I finally settled for a cafeteria type place called Back Werk. I’d previously tried it in Berlin, and it wasn’t great there, and it wasn’t great in Vienna either. At least the cold schnitzel sandwich was mostly edible.
Making the way over to the hostel, it became clear that it was actually a house. It looked kind of like a house on the booking website, and it actually was! Our room turned out to double as the office with a bunk bed wedged into one of the corners. The house was pretty laid back and calm compared to a lot of hostels since there were only about 20 people there instead of 200 or more.
A very short walk away from the house was one of Vienna’s main attractions, Schönbrunn Palace. The entrance was on the back side of the palace. After walking through some woods it was clear that we were at the top of a hill. There was a large building built there to admire the panorama, which included the palace downhill from it as well as the rest of the city.
I guess the best way to describe the Palace would be to call it a “Versailles Lite”. It was grand and impressive like many of the European palaces, but it wasn’t as refined as some place like Versailles. It was definitely a more utilitarian place with what seemed like more rooms meant for practical purposes and not just as showpieces. We only toured a couple dozen rooms and there are far more in the palace, so that might not be a completely accurate assessment of the palace. The climate in Vienna is colder, so the heating stoves in the rooms were a noticeable change. They appeared to be porcelain, and were filled from a space between the walls to prevent the rooms themselves from becoming dirty. The color red was also on display throughout much of the palace and really stuck out. Like any opulent place, there were plenty of paintings on display. The ones in this palace were more realistic than a lot of European paintings. Many of them depicted nature and rustic scenes.
Much like Versailles, the area behind Schönbrunn was filled with gardens and fountains. Unlike Versailles, the fountains here were on every day, although there were far fewer fountains. The gardens were a little less extensive too, which meant it was easier to not get lost in the hedges.
Finding dinner was a bit easier than finding lunch. There still weren’t too many restaurants despite going even further into the city. We eventually found an Italian restaurant that was big, large enough to have other parts of it be a club and yet another part be a hookah lounge.
After missing some music festivals in other cities by a couple of days, Vienna was actually hosting one! The entire festival was located on a long island in the middle of the Danube River. Upon entering the area, we were stopped by security, who asked us if we had fire. I think they meant lighters, but even if that’s what they were asking, they weren’t doing a good job at stopping people from entering with lighters. There were something like 20 stages set up for the festival. The entire area was crowded with people, I would estimate that there was over 50,000 easily. The areas near stages were especially crowded, of course. After walking the length of the festival over a few hours and occasionally stopping at a stage (most music was in English), it was time to head back to the hostel. Sadly, we missed the last bus by a couple of minutes. The system was a bit strange as the buses quit before the subway quit.
Sunday June 28th
It was time to head to downtown Vienna. The main attraction in central Vienna is yet another palace, the Hofburg Palace. Unlike some other palaces where the whole thing was billed as one attraction, the Hofburg was home to a bunch of different museums with different focuses, some of which didn’t really seem to have much to do with its royal past. There were also a couple of nice parks in the area.
After lunch at a place with really good schnitzel but rather slow service, I headed over to the train station. We got reservations for the train to Venice the next morning, and then I hopped on a train to Bratislava.
I hadn’t planned to go to Bratislava before, but I was looking at the Eurail map or some other map at one point and realized that it was highlighted as the only major country in Slovakia. It was also very close to Vienna, which meant that it was possible to do a day trip. In fact, Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest capital cities in the world, separated by less than 40 miles. The train ride would only take an hour and there were about 40 trains a day leaving one city for the other so I knew it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to catch a train back to Vienna.
There were two train options that would get me to Bratislava. I decided to take the first one because I didn’t want to sit around at the train station and it looked like the two stations in Bratislava were equidistant from the main attractions. That meant that I took a train into the station on the south end of town. I guess I misjudged how many attractions were in the area when I looked at the map because it was clear that I had arrived in a residential area called Petržalka. It was still a neat experience because the area was filled with huge, identical apartment buildings. They were clearly built decades ago while Slovakia was under communist rule but had been brightened up in recent years by painting them various colors. Also, the city is so close to the border with Austria that from the train station, it was about the same distance to the Austrian border as it was to the main part of town.
I knew I would have to cross a bridge to get to the main part of Bratislava. I was following the map I had saved on my phone but the detail was lacking right around the bridge. I thought one path was a bike path entirely and so I crossed under the highway and wound up at a mall. I hope that mall was under construction because it felt very unfinished and constructed rather shoddily, but it was hard to tell if that was just the quality of workmanship for the country. I found an exit that had a walkway to the highway. I thought this meant I found the pedestrian path, but it turned out to just be the bus stop. So it was down and under and back along the path that I thought was a bike path. I eventually did find the pedestrian ramp to the bridge and crossed the Danube River (the same river that was in Vienna, in case you forgot). I guess this would also be a good point to mention that the bridge has the nickname of “UFO Bridge” because the tall pillars in the middle of the bridge have a restaurant shaped like a UFO on top of them.
One landmark was very clear to see. The Bratislava Castle was on top of a hill which meant it could be seen from across the Danube. So, I started climbing up that hill. The path wasn’t marked too clearly but I figured as long as I went uphill I was doing fine. The view from the top was great, and you could see most of the city. This castle actually felt like an old castle too — there weren’t windows on what would be the first couple of floors so it felt like they actually had some time of defense. Of course, they didn’t really have a huge outer wall like the Tower of London, but instead relied on a small wall and the terrain for protection, I guess.
It was too late on Sunday afternoon to do much at the castle except look at it, so it was time to head back into town. There was a highway separating me from the main part of the old town. I found a pedestrian bridge to take me across and wound up walking through the old city walls that now lined the highway. It did look a little strange to have these thick medieval walls right next to a major highway but I guess they’d help keep the sound down a bit. Right next to the wall was this very old church with a large tower. Google tells me it is St. Martin’s Cathedral. The door was open so I decided to go inside. They were having a service, but there were other tourists standing near the back watching too so I didn’t immediately exit. I think they were chanting in Latin (it didn’t sound Slovak) and they were definitely waving incense around an altar. The strong smell from the incense was too much to take after a couple of minutes.
There were plenty of cafes and places with cheap food throughout Old Town, much like Prague’s outer districts. I wasn’t hungry though, so I kept walking. I soon came across a market selling actual goods. There had been plenty of markets in other cities but this one wasn’t selling just souvenir kitsch or the same things over and over .There were people selling handmade goods of all sorts.
One of the major things that contributes to Bratislava feeling like a much smaller city is that the buildings are clearly shorter than in many other cities. While a lot of the major cities have buildings that are usually 6-7 stories throughout the entire city, the buildings in Bratislava were usually three or four stories. It was also clear that Bratislava was much poorer than a lot of the cities. There was an obvious need for maintenance on many of the streets, sidewalks, and parks. Then there would be occasional warnings near buildings telling you to watch out for falling plaster. Yikes! The graffiti was also noticeable but not particularly bad compared to someplace like Rome.
I knew I would need food for the long train ride the next day, and luckily I found a large grocery store (Tesco) in the basement of a shopping center. I got quite a bit of food and a couple bottles of soda for under 7 euros. This store had a massive bakery and everything was half off since it was the evening.
Heading towards the train station on the north side of town, I first passed the Slovakian Technical University. The building had clearly seen better times but it was surprisingly large considering it would have been at least a step below Czech Tech in prestige while the country was Czechoslovakia.
On the far side of the university was a large square. Very clearly had seen better days. At first I thought it was one of many “Victims of Fascism” war monuments that exist throughout Central and East Europe, like these in Yugoslavia. Once again, a little searching on the internet proved me wrong. It was actually Námestie Slobody, a square dedicated to the first communist president of Czechoslovakia (the current name means Freedom Square). The picture in the article I linked to makes it look like a pretty nice fountain (it was hard to tell that it was even a fountain in its current state) with a lot of nice landscaping around it. Well, apparently they stopped cutting all grass and doing any sort of maintenance to the former fountain years ago. There’s a little palace on the other side of the fountain square from the university and it houses the government for Slovakia, which makes the dilapidated square even more out of place.
I was close to the train station so I decided to finally try to find some food… and there weren’t really any restaurants around the area. I guess I had this grand idea that the major train station for a country would have food options. Not in Slovakia. There were just a few fast food type places on the outside of the building. They had pretty cheap food so I went ahead and bought a hamburger for something like $1.50. They pulled it out of the refrigerator and I contemplated eating it for a couple of minutes before deciding that the potential for food poisoning wasn’t worth it. I did find a vending machine inside the train station and got some thin, flat cookies with chocolate on one side. They are a pretty common thing throughout much of Europe. They were also chilled a bit which made them taste even better.
While waiting in the train station, I noticed that it had a very old mural on its wall. It was painted during the communist era and was old enough to feature Sputnik.
After the short ride back to Vienna, I quickly found a McDonalds as I was very hungry at this point. Much like the cookies at the train station, I think this was the best Big Mac I have ever had. I even had time to eat it before the bus left! I was also glad that I caught the last bus of the day this time, as my legs were very tired at this point.