For lovers of brutal architecture, curiosities from Slovakia’s communist days still exist, but it also has an old town and castle.
Under the Vegas hostel, on shop and bar strip Obchodna, is the Eden Pub. For less than £2.50, I get a plate of roast potatoes, fried eggs and cheese, which sets me up for a tour of the quirky statues that jazz up the old town. These include a bored Napoleonic soldier leaning on a bench, a furtive paparazzo spying round a corner, and a strange character climbing out of a manhole cover.
After a walk up to the castle, it’s back to the blue Danube for hot chocolate in Spanish bar Malecon to wait for dusk – a great time to climb the UFO observation tower and see the town at twilight. From this communist relic, 95m above the Nowy Most (new bridge), you can look down on the concrete ghetto of Petrzalka – an entire city of grey panel-built tower blocks called ‘panelka’. Food is pricey in the tower’s candlelit restaurant, so as a one of the famously beautiful Slovak women totters past, I make do with coffee and the view.
Tonight local ice hockey heroes HC Slovan are playing at home. A short trolley bus ride later, I meet hostel manager Lukas at the hockey stadium. “It’ll be even bigger when we host the 2011 World Ice Hockey Championships,” he proudly tells me. I’m shocked at the prices: £4 entry, and a big fried chicken sandwich with a pint comes to only £3. Unfortunately there are no cheerleaders or team brawls, but Slovan come from behind to win, and we hit Obchodna for cheap beer and pizza.
Just an hour east along the Danube, busier and pricier Vienna is a very different experience. Imposing baroque buildings remind visitors that Austria was once a great power, while stylish shops show its modern prosperity.
For centuries the Habsburg dynasty ran the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire from the lavish Schloss Schönbrunn. Emperor Franz Josef ruled places like Bratislava from the palace’s rooms in the 19th century. He was no slacker though, my audioguide tells me, getting up at 4am to stay on top of the imperial admin.
Post-war Vienna was the setting for cult 1949 film The Third Man. Near Praterstern station, a classic cinematic confrontation took place on the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel. The shed-like cabins haven’t changed, and it’s easy to picture a villainous Orson Welles inside one. For more contemporary culture, exhibitions at the MAK art centre are free on Saturdays.
Pickwick’s Café Bar is a good place to be at beer o’clock, before the nightlife of the adjoining Bermudadreieck (Bermuda Triangle) beckons. As the pints flow inside the busy bars, locals guzzle kebabs and schnitzels outside.
Bratislava and Vienna may be very different cities, but some things are universal.