The first intercity train ride we took in this vacation was the Prague to Bratislava route. The journey normally takes about three hours as we pass through a few stops.
Buying train tickets can be a dilemma since buying them online a few weeks before intended travel provides psychological assurance, but also at a hefty price sometimes. On the flip side, waiting to arrive at the station before securing a train ticket entails nervousness to a newbie traveler, but ensures you are not paying more for that extra convenience you can handle yourself anyway. I’d like to call out Rail Europe, whose Hong Kong website offers train tickets at exorbitant prices compared to the actual rate you pay on the station. While I read at a certain forum that its UK counterpart offers more reasonable train ticket fares, I’ve resolved to avoid the company in favor of buying tickets at the originating station, if circumstances allow. Now, you can choose what’s best for you.
Boarding the EC 171 Hungaria, we left Prague close to noontime and arrived at Bratislava around quarter before four. Our second class compartment was good for four, and we shared seats with a South Korean student and a Hungarian elderly woman. Both of them are bound for Budapest, the terminal station of this route. The seats are actually facing each other but, unlike taking the seat opposite driving directions at Hong Kong’s double decker First Bus units, sitting on either side offers the same level of comfort.
The short trip takes us to the plains of Central Europe, this time occasionally covered in a blanket of snow or hectares of leafless oak and linden trees. From a distance, it is easy to observe small farming hamlets with a handful of dwellings, whose household, at this time, must have been busy tuning up fireplaces as evidenced by the faint smoke coming out of the chimney.
First stopover was at Kolín, located along the Elbe River and just 55 kilometers from our starting point. The train station is rather old, and just like the more popular Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, has Soviet influence painted all over it. Twenty minutes later, we made our second stop at Pardubice, known for its chess tournament and home of ex-NBA player Jiri Welsch. Just the same as Kolín, there’s not much activity in this station except for a few boarding passengers. The surrounding was cold and doleful. Perhaps locals are just dealing with Christmas hangover and wish to stay indoors.
Inside our compartment, our elder companion chose to occupy time with her daily dose of sodoku and a handy paperback. The South Korean guy must have felt isolated from his American friends and decided to leave his luggage — and reservation label outside our compartment — and head towards the more jovial cell a couple of blocks away. Shortly after, a female ticket inspector armed with bar code reader, pen and perhaps a box of currency visited each cell and sought for our tickets. Our tickets were printouts from an online booking transaction so it was necessary to scan the accompanying bar code, while the conventional ticket the Hungarian passenger is holding deserved a quicker glimpse and a nod of thanks.
One of the things we can easily do while traveling is to rob our bags with whatever food it can offer: crackers, granola bars or mint candies. But I realized that it is much more important to keep hold of drinking water. We brought with us the indispensable 500 ml bottle container primarily to make sure we have steady supply of fresh water during long trips, especially when water is expensive (a small bottle costs about 1.5 euro), if available at all.
After equally short stops at Břeclav and Kúty, we drew closer to Bratislava as we begin to see bigger buildings, busier roads and thriving workforce, from street sweepers to truck drivers. We bid goodbye to our Hungarian roommate who offered sort of greetings (which unfortunately sounded gibberish to us) with a smile. It was almost 4 pm and noticeably the weather isn’t favorable for backpacking couple stuck in a gloomy winter afternoon. Melting snow offered risk for slippery roads. But never mind, we have to make the most of our brief stay in this place, the shortest among our four-city journey.
One of the things I often read about Bratislava is their notorious ticket checkers who allegedly prey on innocent/ignorant passengers who fail to validate tickets after boarding the trolley bus. Mind you, Bratislava doesn’t have a subway line so trolley buses and trams are the most efficient means to get around. But even before we arrived, I was determined not to take public transport mostly because the hotel we are staying (Abba Bratislava) is just about twenty minutes away by foot and located in between Bratislava hlavna stanica and the city’s major attractions.
Amid the rain patches and wet footwear, my wife and I braved the cold, wet weather to reach our hotel. Once we arrived at Abba Bratislava Hotel, we were rewarded with warm and accommodating front desk personnel and wonderful hotel room. This is the convenience of a smaller, boutique hotel: no long queues and you certainly get to your room within ten minutes of your arrival.
Since we are bound for Vienna tomorrow afternoon and time is of essence, we decided to take anevening walk to view part of the city. It’s a good thing that Bratislava’s main attractions we well-lighted and tourist-friendly (plenty of pubs and coffee shops remain open until late).
One of the most attractive landmarks is the Bratislava Castle, located on top of an isolated hill and just overlooking the Danube river. Equipped with a map provided by the proactive hotel staff, it wasn’t hard to find our way through the attractions. And I guess we will be forgiven for being ignorant on the distinction among tram stops, trolleybus stops and bus stops even though we never attempted to board any of them. The whole town is nicely paved, with occasional cobble stone pathways especially leading to Bratislava Castle. On the way you’ll see cozy small cafes populated by hockey fans watching live games (ice hockey is Slovakia’s national sport; its national team won silver in the 2012 Finland/Sweden World Championships) while enjoying a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. Otherwise, the path we took was a dark, cold and desolate slice of the city.
The weather was rather unpleasant; it wasn’t only cold, it was also wet that pavements are pretty slippery especially those with chunks of ice and snow, and reminded me of a hard fall I experienced at Flagstaff, Arizona. No wonder, I am thankful I brought that bulky but reliable pair of Rockport shoes which were more ideal for such terrain. On our way leading to the Castle, like in many other instances, there are hits and misses. It’s not unusual for us to retrace our steps once we found out we’re on the wrong way.
Finally, after catching our breath and averting slips, we reached that majestic Bratislava Castle, its recently-repainted white walls are illuminated by the lights that magnify its beauty. In other places, castles like this may require people to pay to get in. But Bratislava Castle was free to all who wish to explore this landmark built in the 9th century. A couple of guards at the gate were unmindful of our presence along with a dozen others who were greeted with a reassuring note that the castle was open until midnight.
I learned that from this point in the hill, it is possible to view portions of Austria and Hungary, given good weather conditions. But we didn’t expect that on this cloudy night.
Going around the city’s main square was like a smaller replica of its big sister Praha. The places described in Wikitravel were just a stone’s throw away from each other. There was a sense of more intimacy — fewer skaters in a smaller skating rink, fewer passengers on trams with fewer sets of coaches. And even at night time, it was a wonderful place to take photos. It wasn’t hard to update Facebook check-ins on mobile either; wi-fi hotspots are plenty within the main square, notably on nearby bars. I just had to stay close to a pub near Saint Michael’s Gate. No need to buy drinks or ask for password to get a connection. It wasn’t long before we discovered that Taiwan has been assisting Slovakia in its wi-fi projects.
The following day, we decided to check out early and leave our luggage at the counter as we continue exploring the city. We would pick them up on our way back to the main train station, again by foot. This is why I think Abba Bratislava is an ideal hotel for short-stay visitors to make the most of tight schedules in the city.
Before heading towards the main train station for our hour-long travel to Vienna, we treated ourselves a well-deserved dose of rice meal at a Turkish restaurant Bosphorus along Obchodna street. Devoid of large malls in sight, we resolved that presents to friends will have to wait until we arrive in Vienna, or Budapest.
I am glad I inserted Bratislava into the “original” list of cities we planned to visit (which explains why we only had a day to spare here). The visit was worth the inclusion. The city, at least the more prominent attractions, can be explored in a day.
As we were waiting for our train in the station, the past 24 hours seemed like a blip in our brief European tour, but it dispelled some of a newbie traveler’s worries. That security is still best served with common sense, that rude ticket inspectors may have better attitude than advertised, and such a city, whose popularity isn’t at par with Paris, London or even its revered neighbors Vienna or Prague, should remain the way it is. Bratislava certainly left me with good memories.