Boat trip to Bratislava (Slovakia)

It seems that the any seasoned traveller nowadays must have travelled down the River Danube on one of the those elongated, floating hotels that ply their way between Passau on the Austrian/German border to Constanta on the shores of the Black Sea. I’m told that the whole 1,500 mile trip through eight countries can take up to a month and cost really serious money so I had planned a more modest substitute. The Twin City Liner: it covers the fifty mile trip between Vienna and Bratislava at a cost of thirty euros (minus senior discount, of course).

On Monday, after a long and fruitless struggle to book my ticket on-line, I gave up and hopped onto the Vienna Metro to go and buy one directly from the waterside office. No, I was told, there were no seats available on either sailing: “sorry”. Making my way back up the ramp, I nursed my disappointment and tried to work out some sort of alternative. Perhaps if I could use my train ticket to execute the trip in a sort of reverse “Z” shape; maybe I could get to Bratislava by train and then return to Vienna by boat to catch an onward train to Budapest. It sounds a bit silly by now but I really didn’t want to miss my Danube Cruise so I turned on my heel and went back into the ticket office to check on the alternatives.

Wouldn’t you know it, tickets had just become available for the boat I had wanted in the first place. On reflection, I suspect the earlier shortage may have been caused by other people locking up seats on-line while they swore at their computer screens for long intervals before throwing up their hands in despair but it matters not. The travel deities had taken pity on me and I would have my river trip on the following day, after all.

A surprisingly green canal leads from the Vienna waterside to the broad waters of the Danube itself but these verdant riverbanks can surely only be maintained for the enjoyment of local fishermen at enormous expense. Whoever in the government has prevented the development of this land into incredibly valuable real estate they must have had quite a struggle on their hands. I was even more surprised when the boat pulled out into the great river to find it so empty of traffic. I can’t say that this particular stretch is as picturesque as the Elbe (when did I see that one? Oh, yes the Dresden/Prague train runs alongside it) but it is anything but industrialised.

Bratislava (formerly called Pressburg) announces itself with an impressive four-square castle overlooking a bend in the river. The capital of Slovakia seems to have more or less accepted its fate as a poor relation and day trip destination situated conveniently between its more important neighbours, Vienna and Budapest, so that even before you get off the boat you are met with one day, half day or even shorter tour package options. Well, I didn’t have long there either so I signed on too and found myself on a bus going up through some picturesque medieval streets to the Castle.

This “inverted table”, as it is known for its four skinny towers, may have been substantially re-built in the 1950s but its history goes back to the Bronze Age and for three hundred years it was the crowning place of the Kings of Hungary. Its interior is now sparsely furnished and largely devoid of treasures but its many ghosts and legends give it a special appeal. My favorite is undoubtedly the story of why the many tunnels leading out of the basement are all blocked up nowadays. Once upon a time, a great Queen ruled the land in her own right but many of her noblemen thought that, as men, they could do a much better job and plotted to overthrow her at a the next state banquet. Getting wind of this, the Queen enlisted the help of all the witches of the town and persuaded them to turn themselves into courtesans for the night. Well, the wine flowed and it didn’t take much for the women to lure their dining companions down into the dungeons for a bit of “privacy” whereupon they were able to turn them into stone. The clever women had simultaneously done away with the conspirators and blocked up the only access for their reinforcements.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a historical queen to fit into the above story but that hardly detracts from its charm. The castle was followed by a city walking tour as part of the inclusive package but since I had to join an Italian group for mine I struggled to pick up much background information about the monuments, churches and civic buildings all around us. It was undeniably pretty and I snapped plenty of amusing pictures but I couldn’t help but be disappointed and kept my questions (in English) until the end. Our guide (let’s call him by the popular Slovakian name, Jan) whispered that since his next group had been cancelled he would be happy to meet me around the corner in ten minutes for a private tour. Well, I’m a big girl now and I can take care of myself so I agreed.

This softly spoken language professor then gave up his lunch break to walk me around to the adorable little, blue-glazed Roman Catholic church of St Elizabeth. The gorgeous Majolica tiles which coat this hundred year old building are an appropriate commemoration of the thirteenth century saint, Princess Elizabeth of Hungary. She was caught by her father taking bread from Pressburg Castle to feed the poor but upon handing over the contraband to her angry parent he found that all the loaves had been turned into roses. Roses have been her symbol ever since as, presumably, giving flowers to the starving was considered less of a filial transgression back then.

It seems that Catholicism is the majority religion in Slovakia to this day but whether that accounts for a more welcoming attitude to immigrants than to be encountered in the Orthodox Christian countries I cannot be sure. Jan explained that this is not a primary migrant destination since it does not lie on the main route to Germany, France or the UK but that this has not stopped the Far Right politicians from gaining ground. This is a stable country that split from the Czech Republic in 1993 in what was known as the “Velvet Divorce”, since the Slavs felt that they were taking too much of a back seat to their Czech neighbours now that Communism was being dissolved.

Slovakia enjoys reasonable economic conditions and is apparently not too unhappy with its position within the European Union. The honeymoon may be over and some of the EU loans now due for repayment but if all Jan could find to complain about was over-regulation of the production of his favourite traditional cheese, things could not be quite that bad. Of course, cheese and the country regions got us talking about the “rest of Slovakia”, the beautiful land that stretches East over towards the Carpathian Mountains and a land that I know I must visit before it is too late.

Categories: Europe

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