Banská Štiavnica & Bratislava, Slovakia
On our second journey through Slovakia we first stopped in Banská Štiavnica, an old mining town. It was compact, hilly and colourful, with houses painted in a range of bright colours and patterns. The UNESCO-listed centre appeared to be frozen in time, and it was fantastic to wander around the medieval buildings. We walked up to the Old Castle, took a peek inside but decided it wasn't worth forking out the entrance fee. From there we made the undulating walk over to the New Castle (this tiny town apparently needs two castles), which we did pay for because there was a museum inside, plus it offered impressive views over the surrounding area. The museum was incredibly boring - I don't think I learned anything. Honestly, I was just there for the lookout from the top floor, which in the end was slightly disappointing as I had to take photos through the reflective windows. Not ideal.
We left Banská Štiavnica and made our way to the capital, Bratislava. We drove through the middle of the small city and parked on the other side, in what turned out to be the wealthy, upper-class area. From our car park we explored the newer section of the city, which was mostly industrial and not at all worth seeing. Plain buildings and graffiti made up much of what we saw.
Our guide book mentioned an Indian restaurant nearby, and we hadn't had Indian in so long that we made the quick decision to eat dinner there. After half an hour of searching we could not find this restaurant (it may have been converted into a Slovakian eatery), forcing us to give up and walk back to the car through the rain. We did pass the Castle and the UFO Bridge (so called because high above the bridge sits a restaurant, which looks like a UFO) lit up at night, so it wasn't all for nothing. Danny ended up making a beautiful lentil soup for dinner, which I'm sure was better than whatever was on offer at the Indian restaurant.
The next morning started off cold but it warmed up by the afternoon. We weren't ready to give up summer yet. First up we visited the Bratislava Castle, which consisted of a huge, white square building with an orange tiled roof and not much else. The best we could say about it was it provided okay views over the city and the Danube River. Next, for something different, we stopped at a clock museum, housed in a tiny, three-storey building and featuring various kinds of old-fashioned clocks. There were also paintings that incorporated working clocks into the scene. It was mildly ing, but probably not something I would do again. After this we headed for the cathedral, but it was undergoing reconstruction so there wasn't much to see there.
I was keen to go up to the observation deck on the UFO Bridge (officially called New Bridge, but how much cooler does UFO Bridge sound?) but Danny was anti that idea, so he sat in a cafe and made his way through two coffees while I ventured skyward. There were no signs on street level to direct me and it was only luck that got me to the viewing platform in the end. The deck was actually on the roof of the restaurant, completely open-air, with just a waist-high barrier around the edge as the only safety measure. It was fascinating how built up the city was on one side of the river and how empty it was on the other, containing only trees as far as the eye could see.
I picked up Danny from his coffee indulgence and we visited the Slovak National Gallery, steering clear of the Baroque paintings and instead sticking to the modern artwork. One floor was an exhibition by a Polish painter, which was alright (Danny loved it), while the other two floors consisted of paintings and photos by mostly Slovakian artists separated into before, during and after WWII. The paintings and photos were often completely unrelated other than they were created at the same time, but it was an absorbing display and a brief glimpse into Slovakia's history and culture.
After a cheap but tasty lunch we ticked off a few more sights: the Blue Church, painted an peculiar baby blue outside and containing the same coloured pews inside; a palace (there are tons of palaces in Bratislava), where several rooms were covered with mirrors to make it seem larger than it really was; the new Old Town Hall, as they call it; an average centre square; more palaces; several statues, which are famous in Bratislava and feature prominently on postcards; and finally, the Presidential Palace, one of the more impressive palaces in the city, with massive gardens at the rear. I think we covered nearly every tourist attraction in Bratislava.
A quick drink in an outdoor cafe was all I wanted; Danny was up for a whole pub crawl. So I headed back to the van and left him to his own devices until dinner. We met up at a Chinese restaurant (we still couldn't find Indian) where we ate brilliant entrees but average mains. I ordered beef with chilli sauce – not only was there nothing chilli about it, but the thin strips of beef were deep-fried. Not in a batter or anything, just plain, deep-fried meat. The texture was so unpleasant I couldn't finish it, so I devoured half of Danny's non-deep fried pork instead. Weird.
After dinner Danny took me to a bar that he had fallen in love with, and didn't stop talking about the rest of the night. It was one of the smallest bars I had been in, but the cool part was that the interior resembled an old tram. The main room was long and narrow, with a wooden bench seat along the wall, and a mock driver's carriage at the end. To order drinks we had to pull a cord above us (like in a real tram), which rang a bell and signalled the waitress to come over. Danny thought this was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. The drinks were cheap too, so that was a bonus.
Down the road from Bratislava was Devín Castle, a stone's throw away from Austria. The Castle ruins were situated on top of a rock, making for a steep climb to the entrance. We couldn't explore half of it (the better looking half) because of reconstruction, but the section we did walk through gave far-reaching views across the ordinary countryside. The ruins themselves were decent enough to justify the trip out there. Out the front of the site was a hotel with a large outdoor table suspended about 10 metres in the air. The chairs and table were joined together as one unit, and the seats sensibly offered seat belts. No one was using it today, but I would have been up for a meal in the sky if it was on offer. I don't think I would have had any chance of getting Danny to join me. There were also a handful of market stalls, one giving away free fruit wine samples. Danny made a beeline to the stall and sampled all three varieties – redcurrant, blackcurrant, and a mixture of the two. I wasn't thrilled by any flavour, but Danny liked them enough to buy two bottles.
Our final stop was Trenčín, a uni town where the average age was about 20. There wasn't much to see other than Trenčín Castle, which again was on top of a hill but this hill seemed to be five times higher. When we arrived at the Castle gate after a long, long walk we discovered we had to pay for a partial tour, which was entirely in Slovakian. They did give us a guidebook in English, but it was like an encyclopedia and there was no way we could read it all. After the 15 minute speech we were free to climb the tower by ourselves. It was of a better standard (and more intact) than Devín Castle, and the goats sitting in the turrets definitely nudged the scale in Trenčín's favour. It was a great way to finish our second tour of Slovakia.