The unfortunate fact about life is that sometimes it doesn’t play out the way you’d like. Even in the beautiful old city of Bratislava, one can have a less than pleasurable experience. This is especially true when it comes to long-term, budget travel.
Sometimes these negative vibes come from the overcrowding of some once-idyllic beach. Perhaps it’s the tourist hordes at some beautiful monument you’ve been dying to photograph. Other times, however, it’s subtle things, many of which add up to the proverbial dark cloud hanging over a visit to an entire city or country.
Most of the time, these little issues are out of our control, sometimes they’re our own faults entirely. Unfortunately, as much as I’m a believer in the concept that it’s all in how you react to a situation, sometimes we just can’t help feeling down.
This was the case during our recent visit to Slovakia, particularly the city of Bratislava.
Too Happy, Too Soon
Following several weeks in central Europe, we’d began making our way from Czechia to Romania. As we’d be crossing through Austria and Slovakia en route, we saw no reason not to spend a week in each.
Vienna was simply outstanding. We loved every minute of our time in that beautiful city. I realize I throw that word around a lot on this blog but if any city in Europe truly deserves the title, it just might be Vienna. Anyone who’s been will probably agree.
Our accommodation was great, everything we ate was delicious, the people were friendly and the weather couldn’t have been better. We wandered the streets in awe of the architecture; and met up with a friend, finalizing some upcoming travel plans with her. Aside from it being relatively brutal on the budget, Vienna had us high.
That was the first problem.
An Unfortunate Welcome
Riding a wave of good energy, we boarded the bus that brought us into central Bratislava. At under an hour, it was probably the quickest bus ride we’d had in longer than we can remember. It was in this brief window of time that things began to turn.
The bus itself was quite impressive, very modern, the interior set up much like an airplane. While Kylee was taking a few photos, the bus attendant popped into frame. She immediately came over and demanded, with a sharp tongue, that we delete the photo.
“No photos are allowed on this bus,” she snapped; which we knew was untrue as we’d met a representative from the company a few weeks prior, who specifically asked us to take photos to promote them.
Upon asking the lady why photos weren’t allowed, she said angrily that it was because she isn’t famous, and doesn’t want her photo taken. While this was completely reasonable, her approach was not.
Although the photo meant nothing to us, our Vienna high was now gone.
Thankfully, a kiosk at the bus station served bourek, one of our all-time favourite snacks from the Balkans. Things weren’t all bad.
Slovakia, though considerably cheaper than many countries in Europe, can still be quite pricey. Bratislava in particular, being a popular spot for those travelling the Danube, is hardly a budget destination.
Following our rather lavish (by budget standards anyway) time in Vienna, we compensated in Bratislava by finding something cheap. Roughly twenty minutes by tram to the centre of town, we arrived at our AirBNB. The neighbourhood was… a little rough around the edges.
Now, we’ve stayed in plenty of dodgy areas in our travels, and by comparison too many of them, this place was fit for royalty. However, by European standards, even our seasoned minds were shaken a little.
Our First Mistake
Things were looking up upon checking in. The place was clean, and though it was a private room in an apartment with another, we were alone. The room was spacious and had access to the balcony, the bed was a pull-out couch, but looked comfortable enough.
The kitchen, on the other hand, was less than impressive. One of our biggest tricks to staying on budget is to cook for ourselves as often as possible. A functional kitchen is obviously an important part in making that a reality.
When the host walked us through, he explained that the gas didn’t work on the stove or oven and that all cooking would have to be hot-water (there was an electric kettle) based. This we soon realized was in fact mentioned in the online booking. Though hidden somewhat cryptically, it was there. We missed it, this was our bad.
A Long, Uninterrupted and Comfortable Sleep
Following a hearty meal of instant noodles and some discount local wine, we climb into bed. The reality of the futon mattress was quickly apparent. Though it may have appeared comfortable, it was like lying on a potato sack full of dried cow shit.
We got up and drank more wine.
Though I’m unsure what time I actually fell asleep, it was at some other ungodly hour that the door swung open a few inches beside my head. Kylee and I both woke up suddenly and sat up, blinded by the light in the hall.
“Oh, sorry, I think that’s my room,” the voice said in broken English.
He was referring to the locked door on the other side of our room. As it turns out, our “private room” wasn’t so private. It was the living room of this apartment. Anyone renting the other private room needed to pass through ours.
Although this wasn’t mentioned in the listing, we had no other options at this point.
It was going to be a long week.
Bouncing Back in Bratislava’s Old Town
Following the interruption, we slept very little. Coffee and cereal for breakfast got us moving, we needed to get out of the flat.
The tram into town was quick and smooth. We stepped out into the warm air and were suddenly struck with our surroundings. While it may not be the most popular city in Europe, there’s still plenty of hype surrounding it. We finally saw why.
With the cobbled streets, we’d now grown familiar with underfoot, we wandered the alleyways of the old town. Medieval cathedrals, towering stone walls and quirky statues surrounded us, while friendly people smiled and the smells of delicious food filled the air.
Things were finally looking up. It was a bit of a rough start, but things seemed to be falling into place. On a tip from a friend, we stopped by the apparently legendary Slovak Pub for dinner. The beer was cheap and the food outstanding. We shared a few simple bar snacks and a bowl of their local specialty. It was almost like a gnocchi-spaetzle marriage with a sheep milk cheese sauce, topped with fried pork fat.
We smiled widely as our arteries screamed.
Another Awkward Encounter
Back home, our neighbour had left. We were alone once more. Another glass of the local sleep-aid and we climbed onto the lumpy mattress.
Again, no sooner did I drift to sleep, the door swings open again. This time closing immediately. Soon, I hear a voice speaking to someone on the phone. They’re just as confused as we were the first evening and are calling the host to ask exactly what the hell is going on.
“But,” we heard the voice say, “They’re naked.” Thankfully, we were not. The previous night’s experience made sure of that. Due to the heat, however, I was shirtless, causing this poor late-arrival some unease. We were awake with the lights on by the time they opened the door again. They were incredibly apologetic and more than awkward.
We confirmed what the host told them and wished them a good night.
Our Second Mistake
No sleep again, we ventured out once more, hoping to catch the vibe of the previous afternoon. The crowds were as busy as before, though something felt a little different.
We spent a few hours wandering rather aimlessly, getting lost in the back streets as much as we could. The beauty of the architecture and the atmosphere of this ancient city had improved our moods considerably. However, when we made the plan to grab a bite to eat before heading home, we realized quickly what it was that felt different.
It was a national holiday in Slovakia. Everything aside from tourist-oriented shops and restaurants was closed. Though we wouldn’t starve, the restaurants and pubs still open were the most expensive in town. We were out of noodles and cereal, it seemed we would be blowing the budget yet again.
Here’s a fun travel tip most people don’t mention: Find out if your destination has any national holidays during your stay and plan accordingly. We didn’t.
This was our fault for not planning ahead.
As we contemplated simply not eating to avoid the outrageous prices at the steakhouses and Irish pubs, we found our break. A small kebab shop on the edge of the old town was still open. The spinning column of chicken was down to a thin shaft at this point and there were many people in line, hinting it was the only cheap eatery open this day.
The kebab itself was relatively mediocre but passable. We headed back to our communal private suite and wasted the evening away with some Netflix.
Not the Fault of the Destination
Bratislava itself is a wonderful city. From the maze-like streets of the old city to the strange, modern design of the UFO bridge, it’s one of those places that makes you wonder why it isn’t spoken of more.
The food we ate in the city was almost always delicious and the people are so friendly. The street art ranges from subtle stencil prints on the wall to canvases spanning multiple stories. With rich history melding with modern, western shopping malls; and stunning, yet sobering memorials, Bratislava has everything that makes European travel wonderful.
Yet, standing on the banks of the Danube on our final evening, we couldn’t help but feel let down. It wasn’t the fault of the city, the country, or it’s people – they’d given us every reason to fall in love with the place.
It was simply a matter of circumstances. Our own mistakes combined with a few minor annoyances and perhaps some inflated expectations left us unsatisfied.
This is ok though, travel isn’t perfect. If everything was amazing, all of the time, we’d never appreciate those wonderful moments that truly are.
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